My cancerversary always looms large in my mind as the day approaches. I usually get quite reflective and think a lot about the previous year, how I’ve changed, how my life has changed, and what role my cancer experience has played in those changes. This year felt different though, and although I was definitely thinking about the day in the last couple of months, when the day itself came, I almost forgot about it completely; if it wasn’t for Facebook memories reminding me with past posts, I don’t know that I would have realized it until the day was over.
Last year, my cancerversary was a really exciting milestone. Your risk of recurrence is highest in years two and three after diagnosis; since you are in active treatment for the first year usually, it makes sense that cancer most often comes back in the years directly following the withdrawal of those forces, so to speak. I remember getting to the end of my first year and being really nervous about starting the next two; and then, just like that, they were over. I was through them and on to the next. It was a wonderful feeling of relief.
We usually celebrate my cancerversary with dinner out or some other treat, but as I sat clinking glasses with Jesse this year, I certainly didn’t feel like celebrating, and this was thrown into even sharper relief when I thought about the joy and accomplishment I felt last year on this anniversary. Instead, I felt a wave of sadness wash over me, mingling with every other emotion going on and creating a mix that took some effort to detangle. What did it mean that I had almost forgotten about this day? Where was this sadness now coming from? Why didn’t I feel more celebratory? In answering these for myself, I hope that perhaps they answer something for you as well.
Worry and fear and learning how to manage them are probably the most challenging part of life after cancer for most, and they were definitely present in my mix of emotions on my cancerversary. Perhaps I worry about the growing distance between my present self and the immediacy and fear of my diagnosis because that is what kept me on track with my lifestyle changes and protocol at the beginning. I fear that the further out I get, the more space and time that separates me from the motivation to be well that filled me after diagnosis, the easier it will be to let things slide, and eventually, things will slide enough that there is room for cancer once more. I fear time passing because what if it is bringing me closer to an inevitable recurrence, regardless of what I continue to do for my health?
And it’s not just the physical improvements to my health that I worry about losing. As I get further away from the day that changed my life so completely, I get further away from my identity as a cancer patient. Even though I call myself a cancer survivor and thriver all of the time now, there is still a part of me that identifies with and feels like a patient. I am on Tamoxifen for another 2 years, and I get a scan and see my oncologist every year. It’s hard not to feel like a patient with those still in the mix. But it’s more than just feeling like a patient; I think that I’ve been actively holding onto it.
Becoming a cancer patient is what changed my life and changed me, in lots of ways that I would have preferred to avoid but in so many more that I am grateful and happy for. By going through cancer, I was simultaneously going through the process of developing into the me I truly want and am meant to be. I think that there is a part of me that is afraid that if I don’t hold on tight to being a cancer patient, that all of that transformation and growth will just reverse and I will revert back to the same behaviours, choices, and habits that contributed to cancer in the first place.
And there is of course survivor’s guilt, and my community of cancer thrivers has been particularly hard hit this year with losses. I have now lost six amazing, strong, wonderful, kind, supportive women that I met through various support groups and organizations, three of them in the last year alone, and on Tuesday, I couldn’t stop the little voice that fears I will be next and admonishes me for celebrating a milestone these women will never see. Why them and not me? Some parts of life, and definitely some parts of health, are a mystery.
So, how to handle all of these feelings of fear and worry and guilt? The first is to simply accept them and to forgive and love yourself completely regardless of them. We can find ourselves easily frustrated by these emotions or feeling shame or guilt because of them, telling ourselves, “I should just be happy! What’s wrong with me?”. But we are human, and therefore we can and will experience the full range of human emotion. It’s normal, it’s to be expected, it’s okay. Be kind and patient with yourself, and you will likely find that these emotions run their course more quickly and effectively than if you fight against them, push them away, or otherwise try to deny them. We don’t want to live in these emotional quagmires, but it’s perfectly fine to visit them. You may even learn something about yourself by doing so 🙂
We can focus on the good in our lives and we can forgive ourselves for being alive to enjoy those good things while others are not. It is in no way your fault that you are still here, and though we know this consciously, our subconscious can be telling us a different story. You are worthy of this life, you deserve to be here, and this doesn’t mean that others weren’t or didn’t, it simply means that it was their time. We can’t control when that time comes for us, and so it does absolutely no good to admonish ourselves or think ourselves unworthy simply because our time is not now when someone else’s was. What you can control is how you show up in the life you have left. Commit to enjoying this life fully because there are those who can’t anymore. And please, please, please, be true to yourself and what you want. Our time here is finite, and I don’t plan on wasting any of it living for someone else.
And know that what we do for our health does matter; it does make a difference, and you can trust that. From exploring these emotions this week, I discovered that I can make more of an effort to trust myself, my body, my love for it, and the belief that I will always do the best I can to support it. I can work on developing my faith in myself, faith that the growth I have experienced is impossible to reverse and that I can continue on this path on my own; just because cancer is what sent me down it does not mean that I need to hold onto cancer’s presence for the entire journey. Having faith in our abilities too is an important one, because our health and our future are within our control to a good extent. There are parts or things that may not be, but if we do everything that we can and trust that things are working out for our highest good, then we can live without so much fear and without regret, no matter what happens next.
I’m ready for you Year 5; bring it on 🙂
Happy Healing ❤️