This is the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, my second cancerversary. In honor of this moment, I want to reflect on where I am emotionally and physically. I hope this reflection will be relevant to others who are learning to embrace survivorship and help those newly diagnosed not to feel alone. I hope this will help everyone to face what is ahead with strength.
This second year after my diagnosis, I had no cancer treatments. I did, on the other hand, have two significant surgeries, both breast reconstruction, neither of which went “as planned.” Nonetheless, they are complete and the only thing left to do, is one more surgery that I am in the process of scheduling now. All this to say, during my first year past treatment, I spent at least half of it, planning for and recovering from surgery.
I spent this year learning to function within my new limitations. My brain seems to need reminders on how to do anything new, anything I have not done since chemo, well those pathways in my mind are gone. Even if I did them 1000 times before cancer. So whenever I meet someone new, whenever I try to solve a problem, or try to remember a book a once read, I am stopped. My words evaporate and my brain is blank. The archives of my mind run like a slow computer.
I spent this year adjusting to scars. I am covered with scars. Scars that itch, and then bleed when I scratch. Scars that span from one side of me to the other. Scars that send shocks of pain, while retaining no other sensation.
I spent this year learning to limit the stress in my life. Placed in an emotional situation, or a setting where I am nervous or anxious, my heart will begin to race.
I spent this year learning to manage my emotions. I cry under any pressure at all.
I spent this year learning how to empathize. I feel other’s suffering. Especially others with cancer. I hear of a mom with breast cancer and I am brought to tears, though I have never met her. I don’t want anyone to walk this road.
I spent this year wondering who I should be. I, like most every survivor I have ever spoken to, struggle with the idea that now that there is hair on my head, I should feel normal. I don’t. I have only begun to heal. My life is raw. Like the skin on my body, I seem to be paper thin. Too thin to withstand the abrasions life brings my way.
I spent this year with a cancer filter. Every new pain in my body creates a flashing alarm in my mind alerting me to the fact that perhaps there is new cancer growing. Every mistake I make, sets off a chain reaction of fear that the chemo damage will never heal, I will never recover. Walking into a doctor’s office is an ominous experience. The smell of the building, the view of the magazines on the table, or the taste of the water fountain creates a blaring warning that something bad is coming or may be already present. These alarms do not resonate like polite cricket-like clocks but rather blare deafening alerts that I must manually reset within me before I am able to respond to the receptionist or answer a doctor’s question. I have spent the year training my body and mind not to fear.
This is where I am, an honest look at me in the natural state of my struggles.
Though I cannot escape these experiences, I have set my heart on something different. Walking in this season of sorrow has a allowed a heightened sense of life as well.
I am learning that fear can be good or bad and that I can replace bad fears with good ones. I currently have both kinds but fear. As my natural fear, the kind I cannot control, minimizes I replace it with good fears that come from taking risks, walking in hope, stepping out in faith. This is the type of fear I am setting my eyes upon in this season.
We remember with great detail, a first date. Why do we remember it so well? Fear. We are scared of rejection, scared of making mistakes, scared our breath smells bad, just plain scared. Yet when all is said and done, fear makes the moment better. It gives us awareness of every detail. It locks moments into our memories with accuracy. It heightens our emotions. In essence, fear provides the capacity for us to feel emotion in a big way. In the right time, fear is a gift.
This same kind of good fear exists in sports, roller coasters, and adventures of every kind. We pay a lot of money to experience fear. We go to a scary movie, ride a roller coaster, climb up the side of a mountain, and paddle down a river because fear for a moment is exhilarating.
Fear, makes us feel alive. It drives out every other thought, focusing the mind, bringing joy and a sense of accomplishment. We love this type of fear and so we go in search of another place to conquer, another ride, another river, another moment to hold onto.
These experiences, of course, are fleeting. We cannot truly achieve lasting peace or joy through back-to-back moments that expose us to good fear. Eventually the ride won’t feel scary and the river will be tame.
In our day to day life, we can experience fear by embracing risk. Risk may be achieved through smaller leaps, but like fear, risk means stepping out in faith, embracing something with no guarantees, and looking at the world through a filter of hope.
When we head out on the adventure, with no guarantees of what we will find, risk is there. Therefore, on our adventure every experience is heightened. Every memory locked in for a lifetime.
Why do we leave our house if there is risk? Because of hope.
Hope is needed when taking risks. We set our minds above the problems that could arise. We hope for a beautiful day, despite the forecast, and hike into the wilderness. We put our mind, our thoughts, and our faith in what is not readily evident. We embrace hope and put that hope into action through faith.
Unlike fear, these emotions are not involuntary; they are a choice. Unlike fear, the heightened sense of life that comes from hope and faith lasts for more than a fleeting instant. For as long as we can hold onto our hope, clarity and peace remain.
Life with cancer does not naturally provide a fear that is good but it does create ample opportunity for hope and faith to thrive. In fact, in many ways, a diagnosis of cancer leaves a person with two choices. To live in involuntary fear, or to choose hope and the act of walking out that hope through faith.
This year I have learned to hope in the strength of my body, in cures, in the kindness of people. This year I have placed hope in love’s ability to rise above. I have placed hope in my ability to release all that I was and find something new, perhaps something better. I hope for these things. I have not found them and so I choose to walk toward them everyday in faith. This risk, this faith, has raised my eyes above all that I currently am. It has given me sense of calm in the the storm. This hope has heightened my awareness of life. Like the experience of fear, living in a state of hopefulness and faith creates a sense of abundance in the mundane.
My year of hope has also gifted me an opportunity for clarity. Clarity is a common experience among cancer survivors, though we may not readily call it ‘clarity’. Many of us have a sudden awareness of priorities, and how our lives align or don’t align with those priorities. We actually experience joy when partnering with what we find valuable. Conversely we carry an increased burden in the tasks that pull us from those things. We live with a sense of urgency. Do not waste the moment. Find a dream for the future.
I would argue, this common experience is the result of hope in our lives. We are experiencing faith, the need to believe in something we cannot see. We are walking riskily, investing our hopes in things that cannot be guaranteed. Cancer allows us to experience life like never before. Though it may not be the roller coaster ride we would have chosen, we are in fact on the ride of our lives.
This year has brought me many wonderfully transcendent moments. I found others like myself. I have experienced strength and courage. I dream bigger dreams than ever before. I learned to be patient with life. I am learning to be patient with me.
Though I see myself grow tired or break into tears, it is what I cannot see that keeps me strong. My eyes are set on all that I can imagine and hope for and I intend to keep walking in faith until these too are seen.