Posted by: julia on Jan 28, 2017
I’m a few days late getting this traditional birthday blog post up this year, because there was a lot going on for my birthday and then I got sick (which I refuse to take as an indication that I overdid it around the birthday shenanigans...it is after all seasonally appropriate and I have been around a lot of people). Today I’m finally feeling better though and ready to contemplate this dual anniversary as I do every year and see what it feels like this time.
For those just now coming to the party, my birthday is also the day I got diagnosed with cancer...the first time, back when I was 23. That makes this year my 25th anniversary of the day my relationship with my body and my mortality abruptly changed. 25 years is a nice round number and worthy of celebration, though it would feel nicer (and more victorious) if there hadn’t also been this new diagnosis and cancer saga part 2 that I have been dealing with for the past year-plus. It’s become interestingly complicated to do this yearly philosophizing now that there are two cancer-versaries to contemplate, but I still like the dramatic dichotomy that this day of transitions from one state to another (from unborn to born, from healthy to ill) presents.
I do still feel a sense of victory, of having made it this far after the initial shock and upset of that first diagnosis. But that sense of victory is tempered now with the reality that life is complicated and the lesson that victory often comes at a cost (which sometimes takes a lot longer than expected to manifest). I can no longer see my life as divided into only three phases, pre-cancer, cancer treatments and post-cancer survivorship—my survivorship status is now no longer something I can confidently assume will not change, since it already has changed once, from cancer survivor back to cancer patient and then back to survivor again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m humongously grateful for and pleased at being back in the survivor identity after a tough second go-round, but the very fact that the pendulum has swung back and forth between having and surviving cancer an additional time makes me have to acknowledge that it could certainly do so again. (In fact, it is more likely to do so again than it once was.) I have to constantly be able to hold two possibilities in my head and heart: on the one hand, that I am free, that I have fought the good fight and triumphed and cancer has once again vanished from my body, never to return because we have salted the earth quite thoroughly (and will continue to for years to come, just in case); and yet on the other hand, that treatments for cancer can sometimes cause cancer, as they did in my case, and that my body seems to be a fertile ground for cancer (as evidenced by it popping up at least twice now that I know of), so even though we have done all we can to prevent recurrence, I cannot be certain that it won’t happen. Holding two opposite things simultaneously and being comfortable in that “gray area” of uncertainty is something I learned to do back in the first go-round with cancer, but now I’ve had a chance to repeat the lesson and it is even more nuanced and complicated. I would say that the ability to live in the gray is one of the hallmarks of maturity, so I guess I would also say “yay me” that I have made it far and long enough to even mature.
One last metaphor (because it wouldn’t be Parentheticals without torturing a few metaphors) that I’ve been thinking about in regards to this cancer-versary and the whole double-cancer saga I now possess is that of the Boulder in the Meadow. This is a metaphor I came up with after another, non-cancer experience to explain how it feels when things change abruptly, but it certainly applies here too. Imagine that your life can be compared to a beautiful forest meadow: open, wide, flat, with lush grass and beautiful little flowers blooming here and there. Perhaps a stream trickles through it, and little fish and frogs live in that stream, and the meadow grass is home to butterflies and hummingbirds and lizards and mice and insects—a whole happy ecosystem. Then one day out of the clear blue sky a giant stone boulder unexpectedly falls smack into the center of the meadow. It rips up the ground, crushes a bunch of grass, and wreaks havoc on many tiny creature lives. The stream now has to divert around it. And it completely changes the view of the formerly flat, open expanse—even though the boulder’s fall has not affected the entire meadow, you cannot any longer look across the meadow and not notice it. It is the single most obvious feature of the meadow now, and it cannot be changed or removed. Over time, things in the meadow eventually return to some sort of equilibrium, and the boulder is incorporated into the ecosystem of the meadow. Grass grows around it, flowers appear in its cracks and fissures, creatures take refuge in its shade. The meadow is still beautiful, but it will never again be the same open, expansive place that it once was. You can’t dismiss the boulder, or wish it away, or pretend you don’t see it. You can mourn the past, and remember fondly the way things once were in the meadow, but eventually you must accept the boulder as something that will always be there. Then you can find a way to view it as positively as possible, and choose to focus on the beauty that is still present.
So in this cancer-saga context, I now have two boulders in my meadow. I’ve had 25 years to incorporate the first boulder, the one that so radically changed my meadow’s topography. It’s nicely weathered and worn now, and has certainly made things more interesting. I have accepted it as an ongoing feature of my meadow, and even grown to appreciate its gifts. But this second boulder—it landed so close to the other boulder, and it’s even bigger than the first one was. It did more damage to the meadow than the first one, and in some ways it is harder to imagine that its presence will ever feel integrated (even though experience with the first boulder should be reassurance that it will, given enough time). It makes me once again remember and mourn the flat meadow that once was, and even the single-boulder meadow that once was. I know that acceptance and integration is possible, and indeed the process has begun, but it isn’t finished yet. Of course, it may never finish—the meadow is an ever-evolving place. But that second boulder still bothers and distracts me with its disruptive, obvious presence.
I wish I could hurry this process of acceptance and integration along, and get back to thinking more about the meadow than the boulders. But every day I still see my scars and feel the numbness and oddity of my new “foobs” (fake boobs) and it still bothers me. I still struggle with feeling like my memory and my energy are not back to “normal”. I yearn—oh how I yearn—to put this latest cancer experience behind me and move on, and I am impatient with the fact that I am still dealing with the aftereffects. However, if there’s one thing that the first cancer saga taught me, it’s that recovery takes time. A long time. I actually think it’s an ongoing experience, not a destination. So there is no “putting this all behind me”, really. There is only the journey, round and round the meadow, looking at things from all angles, appreciating what is good and holding what is not good with as much compassion as I can muster.