by Ann Pietrangelo
There are more than 13.7 million cancer survivors in the United States, a number the National Cancer Institute expects to grow to almost 18 million by 2022. Despite medical advances that help more of us to survive longer, the reality of cancer, and its emotional aftermath simply cannot be measured in statistics.
“You Have Cancer”
The words no one wants to hear. I sure didn’t. Cancer patients are as unique as individuals of any other group, each viewing cancer through the lens of our life experience. I’m not a “why me?” type of person. I didn’t feel that way when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and I didn’t feel that way about cancer. Still, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was really happening to me. Cancer! There’s no way to prepare yourself for that.
The dawning of my new reality came in waves. There was that first inkling that cancer was a probability; then I caught that look at the doctor’s office – the look that hinted at things I could not yet understand; and the suspension of time as the news was delivered and all hope of an alternate diagnosis vanished.
At first, thoughts of cancer were all consuming, playing on an endless loop in our brains, as my husband and I educated ourselves and made decisions we hoped would increase my chances of being counted as a survivor five years down the road.
So, Now You’re a “Survivor”
“You’re already a survivor,” my doctor said, even before treatment began. “From the moment you were diagnosed, as long as you are alive, you are a survivor.”
A survivor. Somehow, I didn’t feel I deserved the label. It didn’t take long to go from finding a suspicious lump in my breast to being called a survivor. Shouldn’t you have to go through something big to call yourself a survivor? If not, aren’t we all survivors just for making it through another day? The whole “survivor” thing was a mystery to me.
Once treatment was underway, we knew we had to turn our attention to the real business at hand – living. We didn’t want to be all about cancer. We continued to work and play and live and laugh and love because if you don’t, you’ll lose yourself. So, you get up every day and you cope with its challenges because this is another day of life and you can take it or leave it and you’d rather take it.
The body and the spirit are inexorably intertwined, each affecting the other for better or for worse. Cancer patients deal with a complex set of emotions regarding their very survival. As you work your way through treatment, the most unusual and unpleasant things become part of your world. Not that you enjoy them, but you accept them as part of the deal when you decided to fight for your life. You hope, with every fiber of your being, that it is but a temporary state of affairs, and that it is going to prevent you from dying just yet.
You begin to ignore the small stuff. As time goes on, you relegate more things to that small stuff category, clarifying the things that matter the most.
After ten months of treatment, it was over. No more surgery; no more chemotherapy; no more radiation treatments. No more fighting to beat the odds, at least not in an immediate medical sense.
It was then that the meaning of the word “survivor” started to make sense. It’s about more than being alive. It’s about being alive after walking through the fires of hell. Well, not hell exactly, but fire nonetheless. It’s about walking that walk with purpose. It’s about being alive in the moment, even when all is not well and the future is a great big question mark, because you realize that whether they admit it or not, it’s uncertain for everyone else, too.
There’s surviving, as in staying physically alive, and then there’s SURVIVING, as in getting past fear and living life to the fullest.
Life After Cancer
The physical scars you take with you into life after cancer are obvious, but the emotional changes can take you by surprise. You have an unexplained pain and thoughts of recurrence are sure to follow. A younger person dies of cancer and you ache with survivor’s guilt. You feel grateful for each day that you’re here, but wonder if you’re making good use of your time.
Survivor statistics tell a story, but not the whole story. Being alive a particular number of years after a cancer diagnosis is a wonderful thing. For many of us, those years are different from the ones that came before. Some survivors thrive, but others never quite recover from the trauma. Cancer doesn’t necessarily come with any great epiphany, but some patients may feel pressured to make great life changes. Cancer stirs the pot, that’s for sure. Things were this way and now they’re that way and there’s no going back. Cancer is a life changer. We survivors must choose how we’ll deal with that change.
I’m a survivor. Where the road leads, or how long it continues, I cannot know, but hey, I’m still on the road, and for that I’m truly grateful.
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer; MS and TNBC survivor; and the author of “Catch That Look: Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Triple-Negative Breast Cancer” and “No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis