Today I went to my yearly oncology checkup (for those new to this relatively old story, the short version is this: diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on the day of my 23rd birthday, treated successfully with surgery and radiation therapy, learned many interesting things during the journey from health to illness and back to health.) Overall it was a very short, easy appointment, with a doctor I respect and like a lot, and as it has happened for many, many years now (I’m coming up on 19 years in remission), I was given a hearty “you look healthy and good” and sent on my way. (Though the one disquieting note was when I asked the doctor when the likely time frame was for secondary cancers to start showing up, and she said “twenty years”. Doh. Better be religious about those mammograms.)
Though it was pretty much all good and I felt (and still am feeling) particularly grateful and happy to be alive (as one naturally does when reminded of a time when mortality was most keenly felt), I just somehow can’t put today’s appointment in the trashcan of forgetfulness without acknowledging how it felt.
How did it feel? Well as always when I have these appointments (or any other major medical experience), it brought up a layered, chunky lasagna of feelings and memories about the whole “cancer experience”. (Yeah, I could have used a different metaphor, maybe a sweeter one like cake or a geological one or something, but there’s something I like about comparing a medical experience to a labor-intensive Italian dinner. So sue me.)
So what was today’s, you’ll excuse the expression, cancer checkup lasagna made of? Here’s a few ingredients (in no particular order of importance):
- complacency, and then self-recrimination about said complacency
- relief at the quickness and simplicity of this year’s appointment--no extra x-rays, tests, or new information to process
- anxiety (because there’s always the chance that something unexpected will come up)
- fear that this time there would be a lump or a bump that I missed that the doctor would find and point out to me
- comfort in the familiarity of the place and situation and the happy attitude of the doctor
- sadness and a little bit of guilt that came with the awareness of my own privileged remission status amongst all the other patients waiting to see their doctors
- pride and pleasure that my body was still strong and functioning decently
- wistfulness--a little bit of missing a particular time of my life that, even though scary, was really good for prioritizing and feeling a certain clarity of intention
- an uncomfortable nostalgia-ish feeling, like an alumni coming back to her old school--sort of wanting to still belong, but not really (this I think was just a leftover re-triggered bit of the inevitable grieving that comes after losing an identity, even a stigmatized one like “cancer patient”)
And then of course the binding sauce, if you will, that touched all the layers: memories of past exams, tests, procedures, convalescences, disappointments, victories, bodily changes, epiphanies and attitude shifts, all smooshed up together and fragmented but apparently still quite full of flavor (at least for me). I’m not going to go into detail here--there’s a book full that wants to come out someday but this is not the time or the place.
I know I’ve come such a long way, and am such a different person now than that young-twenties self. So much has happened, I’ve learned so much, and evolved, and so many new identities have been added and layered over that “cancer survivor” one. And yet that was in so many ways a defining identity/part of my life, one that I am *still* dealing with and trying to put in context. The identity hasn’t left me, I just don’t visit it very often.
I suppose the question hanging in the air at the end of this post has to be, can I ever stop visiting it?
(Do I want to?)