Eleven years ago, on April 24th, I was officially diagnosed with a fast-moving form of breast cancer. I was 25 years old, had only been married 21 months. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because I had to wait for a few doctors to remove their heads from their bums and get on board with my treatment plan, I didn’t have surgery until May 16th. That is an ETERNITY in waiting when you have cancer.
Every year, the time between April 24th and May 16th is weird for me. This year it’s been especially weird and I decided it was time to sit down and figure out what’s going on in my brain and heart.
Anniversaries are special and different, as they should be. Not only are those days hallmarks of who we are and what life has become for us, but they are days of remembrance. We remember events, people, and frequently, forgotten memories flood back on those special days.
For instance, most days I couldn’t tell you very many things about the Diagnosis Day, but every year on April 24th, I remember that I was wearing jeans and blue t-shirt, and standing in the arts and crafts aisle at Target when the call came in. I remember that Greg had been standing with me, but just a minute earlier had walked a few aisles ahead of me and I wasn’t sure what the appropriate gesture was for, “Hey, I think my doctor is about to tell me I have cancer”.
I remember going completely numb. I remember putting down the red wire basket on the floor, and then going back to move it, so someone wouldn’t trip over it. We left Target, barely talking, and somehow made it home. I don’t remember the drive, but I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
Then, very suddenly, I was just glad I knew. I had waited four days between the biopsy and the phone call. I felt like I had lived many years, but hadn’t breathed enough breaths in those four days. Knowing was a relief and suddenly, the air finally felt like it was getting all the way to the bottom of my ribcage.
I remember things from many of the different important days in my walk with cancer, but Diagnosis Day is unique in how specific my brain gets in reminding me of what happened.
In the reminders, come emotions. Lots of them. Since it’s been eleven years, I don’t think about cancer every day. I see my multitude of scars every day, but I don’t feel anything in particular. It’s part of who I am now. However, on the anniversaries, ALL of the emotions come flooding back. I remember panic, fear, anger, frustration, doubt, nausea. I feel that heart-squeezing feeling of not knowing if I was going to be alive in a few years. I remember wondering if my parents were going to have to bury me. I felt and thought things that no person, let alone a 25 year old girl, should feel or think.
The blessing of time is that I don’t feel those things all the time. If I did, I would be wrapped in a nice, comforting white jacket somewhere in a room while doctors hovered anxiously nearby. I’m glad that those emotions go to a safe place for 360 days out of the year.
So, the question remains. Why are the anniversaries so hard? It’s not just the emotions flooding back or the memories becoming de-cobwebbed and aired out again. It’s much more than that.
As a friend pointed out last night while I was in a pretty crabby headspace is that it’s okay to grieve. My initial response was a very classy “Nuh-uh”. I didn’t think I had anything more to grieve. I mean, it’s over. Right? What else is left to grieve?
I don’t have real boobs anymore. I don’t really care. My new ones are part of me and are normal to me. The six by four inch scar on my leg is not startling to me anymore. The round scars on my side where the tubes poked out are no more strange to me than the freckles surrounding them. The scars on my stomach after a very scary surgery, made scarier by my cancer history, are a part of me, too.
Even though I’m pretty excited about being able to wear strapless dresses without the hardware underneath it and that I can comfortably go running in just a t-shirt, the truth is I did lose something. I lost a lot.
I lost months of health. I lost the ability to go into a doctor’s office and confidently know that everything is probably alright with me. I lost a big part of my femininity. I lost many nights of sleep in sickness and worry. I’ve lost the ability to be a “normal” 36 year old.
I’m different now. My story is longer and more complicated than many stories will ever be. I have chronic pain due to a nice parting shot from chemotherapy. I don’t get to make plans knowing that I will be able to keep them. I hardly ever get to be pain free. I battle depression, winning most of the time, but I still have to fight it.
All of those things are worth mourning. They are hard. They are difficult. They are life-changing. And, it’s okay to cry over them once a year.
Lest I leave my mourning in an inappropriate place of honor, I have to remember that cancer did not just take things away. It also gave me everything that I had the ability to learn.
My life is better, richer, and more full for having had cancer. I don’t take my health for granted. I don’t take the gift of my three year old son as something that I deserved to have. I rejoice in the hours, and sometimes days, that are pain-free. I have flashes of overwhelming thankfulness for something as silly as watching my son point to the letters of the alphabet during closing circle time at his school. My faith in God has been challenged, has been stretched almost to breaking, has cracked in places, but has not broken. In my search for the why of cancer, I learned that God is bigger than me, that His plan for me is more wonderful and elaborate than I could ever imagine, the Christ Himself prays for me (seriously, does it get any better than that?), and that God has held me close in every sleepless night, in every terrifying surgery, and has given me His strength when I had none left.
It’s not just about me, either. I have walked with many women through scares of breast cancer as well as the reality of a diagnosis. I have been able to look into the pit that threatens to swallow them and say, “I’ve been down there. It won’t keep you forever.” I can show them my scars and not cry, showing them that life won’t continue to be this awful. My empathy has grown by leaps and bounds and I’ve gained an ability to “see” when someone is hurting.
I would never trade in the grief if I had to give up the blessing as well.
And so, after untwisting my brain a bit, I’ve realized that anniversaries bring remembrances, pain, grief, joy, thankfulness and some pretty deep introspection.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that all of it is okay!
And wine. Wine and chinese food with chocolate for dessert are all okay, too.