Five Years

September 11th, here we are again. A date that is impossible to overlook on our calendars. That date became etched in our brains back in 2001, and became extra awful (as if it needed to become so) for me in 2012, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after my 28th birthday.

So here we are again, another cancerversary, another trip around the sun. This one is a biggie, too: five years. When cancer stats talk about rates of long-term survival, they typically are talking about people who live beyond five years. It’s thought that after that point, your risk of biting the big one continues to drop and you can rest a little easier. Obviously there are all sorts of problems with measuring survival like this, as breast cancer can and does recur many years down the road. So it’s not really a clear indicator of triumph. But it’s the closest thing we’ve got, so for now, I’ll take it. Five years, I’m still here. Has a nice ring to it.

I wish I could say I’ve put it all behind me and never think about the big C anymore, but that would be a lie, and no one likes a liar.

I still have the occasional scare, one of which occurred early in my pregnancy that completely derailed me. The stakes have become infinitely higher now that I have my little baby to think about. Before there were all sorts of things that sucked about the possibility of death. Big time. But now that I’m a mom, I can’t even allow my brain to go there. It’s too much. So when something scary pops up, and my mind is forced to go there… it ain’t pretty. And I hate that I still have to live with these terrifying possibilities. I know so many young women who have died of breast cancer, I’ve lost count. Many of them gone in the past year. What makes me luckier than them? Why should my ending be any different? These questions burn inside of me, no matter how hard I might try to put out the fire. But fortunately, I have the most amazing little distraction to keep me occupied and prevent me from obsessing over my worst fears all day long.

And speaking of that distraction, he pretty much takes up all of my minutes and hours of the day, as babies tend to do. So I don’t have much time to flesh out deep thoughts about what this day means to me. I’m too busy feeding and changing diapers and participating in tickle fights and fits of laughter. And really, when it comes down to it, that’s what this day means. It means everything. Because I have him.

Five years, I’m still here.

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My second cancerversary

Today marks my second cancerversary. Two years have gone by since the day I was diagnosed with cancer.

I wish I could say it’s all behind me, that I’ve moved on and thoughts of cancer never even cross my mind, but that would be a big fat lie. I probably worry about it all a bit less than I did one year ago, but the fear and anxiety is still there. Every time I read or hear of another young woman whose cancer has returned, or who has passed away, I remember, oh yah, that could be me. I’ve had sporadic rib pain for months. No one is particularly concerned about it just yet, so I try not to be concerned. But in the back of my mind, it’s always there: Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe this is it. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

I know that many people ignore their diagnosis dates, since it usually brings up really traumatic memories and dark thoughts. They don’t see it as anything worth “celebrating.” I can understand that. But I choose to remember it and acknowledge it. I don’t celebrate getting cancer. I celebrate that I am still here, two years later, living my life. Not everyone makes it to two years. I know I am lucky. I am so lucky that I’m not sitting in a doctor’s office right now, terrified, waiting to get a cancer diagnosis. I am so lucky that I can relax, enjoy my day, and go out with my husband for a special cancerversary dinner. Why be all glum and depressed about a date, when you can turn it into an excuse to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant on a weeknight? When life gives you lemons…

I also want to post something my sister wrote and sent to me (with her permission) about how she feels on this day, and the significance it holds for her. I don’t know how I would have made it through the past two years without her by my side. She may be my “little” sister, but she sure is wise:

Two years ago today Steph was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember it like it was yesterday. Hanging up the phone with my mom and rushing through the halls of the Medical Sciences Building – tears streaming, heart racing. Running blurry-eyed down to the lab and seeing my classmates’ heads turn, asking if I was okay. I didn’t answer. I continued running down the halls to find our anatomy professor, wanting the comfort of a doctor – of someone with past knowledge that could tell me everything was going to be okay. And although he tried, it wasn’t enough – it didn’t make the fears go away; it didn’t make me think that there wasn’t some slight chance I would lose my sister, my best friend, my confidant, my biggest cheerleader, my number 1. Soon I would learn that from this point forward, these fears would never completely go away.

I remember roaming out to the trees of King’s College Circle, seeking comfort from my classmates, answering my concerned friends’ texts, calling my parents, but all the while, being afraid to talk to my sister. Would I start crying? Would I break down and make her believe she had reason to be afraid? How would I act? Was I going to be the best sister I could be or would I shrivel away, afraid to look at her and be by her side through everything? I didn’t know, but what I did know is that I had to take each challenge as it came – each day something new, trying hard not to look behind and not anticipate the future more than we could. Not an easy task, that’s forsure. The nights spent bawling my eyes out, pacing around, the depression. But what wasn’t present during these times was my anxiety that I’m so used to. I snapped out of flight mode, and into fight mode. I recognized what was important in life, and what wasn’t. Those little things, those stupid little concerns, conflicts, worries – a waste of time. Sitting next to Steph, holding her hand and knowing I wouldn’t let go unless she wanted me to – that’s all that mattered then and all that ever will matter. That’s the only thing I want to hold onto from this whole stupid horrible experience – remembering what’s important and what isn’t. September 11th, for so many reasons, is a day to remember just how lucky we are. We are here and for that, we are lucky. We will continue to complain tomorrow of the streetcar being stuck, of the rain, of the million tasks to do and the short hours in which to do them, but under it all, is a reminder of just how lucky we are to complain of such things. How lucky we were to get to be born. And how lucky we are to continue being alive.

Today is a day that I wish never happened, but because it did, it deserves recognition, it deserves to be remembered as the day my nightmare came true; as the day when I realized just how fragile life is and how important my sister is to me. I’ve never taken her for granted, but on this day, two years ago, the rare incredible connection we have came to light: the moment I felt like she could be taken from me by some stupid rapidly proliferating disease – something she never deserved and should never have had to go through. But she did, with the bravest face in the world – brave doesn’t mean not crying or putting on a fake smile. It means showing your emotion, showing fear. Being brave means being human and she couldn’t have been better at doing just that. There are images I choose not to remember, but images I will never, ever, forget. Times of fragility, of sadness, of honesty and of total vulnerability. There were times we just had to laugh at the whole thing – is this really happening? Really? This is fucked. It was. It is. Sometimes we don’t know how to deal with certain situations, but you learn about yourself when you’re thrown into something you could never have imagined. And that’s what these past two years have been – years of learning that I can be afraid, that I can be sad, but that I can be brave and be strong and that I have the best role model in the world to look up to – the bravest, strongest, inspiration there is.

My sister.