I’m really excited to share with y’all that I celebrated seven years cancer free last Friday! There’s something about hitting seven years that feels like a major milestone for me. One was so exciting, two built upon that excitement because it’s another year removed from cancer, three and four were just trying to squeak by to five, and five felt like winning the lottery because that’s when your risk starts to decrease and you can breathe a little. But seven… seven has been something else.
Whenever I talk about cancer, I focus on the positive. But in light of so many things happening in the world, especially the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I feel it’s important to shed light on the struggles. I tend to leave those out because I never want to be perceived as negative or a complainer. But celebrating being a survivor is so much more than pretty pictures with number balloons; there’s a heaviness, a time for reflection on who I am now and the hell I went through to get here.
Usually, my cancer free anniversary is pretty cut and dried. I get my skin checked in March or April, they biopsy me, I hold my breath for a week waiting for results, it’s all good, I hold my hand to my chest and breathe for a few minutes, and then I move on knowing that in a couple of months I’ll celebrate another year without cancer in my body. This year was special. There were no spots of concern, so no biopsies for me! It was all smooth sailing. Lucky number seven.
This year was also a little different in that I found out in May I needed to have some invasive testing done, and the soonest date available was my cancer free anniversary. This started my ride on an emotional roller coaster. I have done so much reflecting on my experience with cancer in the past three weeks and really allowed myself to feel all of the feelings. Usually when an unpleasant emotion pops us, I repress it. Nope sadness, not today. Fear, I do not have time for you. Frustration, please go away so that I can focus. But I think to truly cope with everything that was going on, I needed to allow myself to go back to that place.
Being a cancer survivor is kind of weird, and it’s different for everyone. Please remember the thoughts and feelings I share are mine alone, I don’t speak for us all.
I chose to be very private about my battle because I felt like that was safest for everyone involved. I didn’t want people around me to be sad. I didn’t want people to treat me differently. I feared people would exploit what I saw as a flaw. I think this is the same attitude a lot of us have adopted toward mental health, as well. If we’re not visibly unwell with our arm in a cast or a brace on our ankle, we sweep it under the rug. Most of us probably don’t see a doctor. (Guilty – I saw my primary care physician on Tuesday. It was the first time in over four years.)
If I could go back, I would be upfront about it. Hey, I have cancer. It’s treatable, and I’m not dying. If I look really bad, it’s probably because I’m sick and also because it’s really hard to wash, dry, and straighten your hair after arm surgery. If I seem sad, it’s probably because I’m dealing with depression because cancer is scary. I would have asked more people for help, as well. Helping is how a lot of people cope with what they’re watching someone go through, and I could have definitely used a hand carrying in my groceries.
I also wouldn’t have been so ashamed of my scar. After my surgery, I wore a cardigan over everything. Even in the summer. I had to take pills so that I wouldn’t sweat. (It is so absurd to type that out, but cancer will do a number on your confidence.) Now I see it as a sign of resilience.
Another choice I made was to stay in school while battling cancer. That’s actually how I told my best friend I had cancer – a text that read Hey, I found out I have cancer and everyone thinks I should take some time off from school. What do you think? When I finally opened up about my battle, so many people commented on the strength that it must have taken to stay in school. To be completely honest, I stayed in school because it was what I knew. I was 20, and I had spent the past 15 years going to school. I knew if I moved home I would be bored and lay in bed all day sleeping and crying. If we’re going to comment on anyone’s strength, it should be my mom’s for respecting my decision.
When I look back on that, it opens my eyes to the number of people silently struggling every day. I’ve always loved the quote about being kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, but allowing myself to reflect made me feel it that much deeper. I was so broken walking around like my life was fine and I had it all together. Speak kindly to people, smile at strangers, show grace. Build relationships, tell people you love them, reach out to that friend you haven’t heard from in a while.
There’s one more thing I feel compelled to share, and that’s survivor’s guilt. Nothing ever prepared for feeling guilty simply because I am alive. My Grandpa passed away about six weeks after I found out I was cancer free. He had chosen to go on chemo that same day. I felt so guilty for so long – why was I allowed to live when he wasn’t? I still feel sick to my stomach when I hear someone has passed away because of cancer.
If you told me seven years ago today that I would be choosing to speak about something so personal vulnerably, I would have shook my head at you and readjusted my cardigan. But I hope moving forward that more of us will choose vulnerability. In a world of Instagram perfection, we’ll be honest and open about the things that cut us to the core. We’ll ask for help when we need it, and we’ll choose to help each other. And we’ll give ourselves grace, because things like these are always easier said than done.
I’m really happy to share with you that I got my test results back yesterday, and everything was good. And I want to thank you for celebrating with me every year. The world needs more people like you!