When I was in chemotherapy treatment, eleven summers ago, my oncologist liked to try to cheer me up by saying something like this: “Some day, years from now, you will look back and not really remember most of this. It will seem like it wasn’t even real, and you will forget about it.”
I appreciated the intention, but honestly, I didn’t believe him. I was in the midst of the weirdest medical melodrama called “chemo” and I was alternately anxious, worried, and terrified. I was able to handle the pain. What I didn’t like was the uncertainty and weirdness. I thought, when he said I would forget the ordeal, that he was wrong: Not me, I thought, I will always remember all of this in great detail.
However, he knew better than I did. He was right: I did forget. Most of the time, if I happen to think about having had cancer at all, it does seem unreal. It does seem like it couldn’t be true. It does seem like it happened to someone else. I have, in other words, not only re-gained my health and kept cancer-free eleven years, but I have also outlived the trauma.
I don’t worry about recurrence. I don’t feel any difference between who I am now and who I might have been without the cancer-at-age-48 terror. Cancer survivorship doesn’t define me. I wrote a book about cancer recovery, but now I find even that book a little hard to relate to as my own.
Recently, however, I had a week where my own cancer history came back to mind. I recalled it more vividly than I had in many years. Why? Someone whose background I could relate to was diagnosed with cancer–and I found myself remembering the weird time when I went from being super healthy and fit to being a cancer patient.
We all like to think that our choices, like good lifestyle, good nutrition, and good amounts of exercise, will protect us from cancer–and they do, statistically. But even the best lifestyle choices don’t guarantee that cancer will skip by you. Sometimes it picks you, and there may officially be no reason why. You did nothing wrong. You did almost everything right. There is no reason. As an old friend of mine once said, sometimes in life, you have to admit “Why not me?” is about as much logic as you can find in a bad circumstance. “Why not me?”
And there you have the path towards letting go of the “Why me?” when the answer doesn’t appear available. You let go of wondering why it happened, and you just start dealing with it, day by day, bit by bit. You look for how to cope. How to conquer. How to prevail. You look for allies. For tools. For good nutrition, good rest, and good amounts of exercise. You ask for help with pesky side effects; you take the pain and the indignities. You go bald and develop a sense of humor about bald jokes. You get humble; you stay proud. You hang on to close friends, and you learn to enjoy the other members of Club Survivorship, even though it’s a lousy club to be selected for. You DEAL with it.
Because, as my dad once said of his chemotherapy course, what choice do you have?
It turns out both my oncologist and I were right. I did forget, and I did move on, but when something triggers me to remember, I do remember being a cancer patient. It was strange and terrible, but it did not go on forever, and I do not remember most of the more gruesome details any more. The pain has been erased from mind.
I wish all the other cancer patients hope, strength and a full glorious recovery. Keep your eye on re-gaining your health. We’re pulling for you.