It is difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that exactly one year ago today I was sitting in a hospital bed. A doctor looked me dead in the eye and told me that the “suspicious mass” found in my abdomen the day prior was a 12 centimeter malignant tumor. I looked at my parents stunned and watched their hearts shatter. In that moment it killed me more to see the fear in my parent’s eyes more than the diagnosis itself. No 24 year old should have to face their own mortality but no parent should EVER have to hear that their child is dying.
In the matter of 48 hours I went from being diagnosed with “just gas, you’re fine” to “You have cancer.” We had so many questions that the doctors couldn’t provide answers for. No one told me that I would die, but no one could answer when we asked if I would live.
With uncertainty like that you can understand how I am completely dumbfounded by the fact that today, 365 days later, I am sitting in my favorite coffee shop by the window, eating a bagel and sipping on a hazelnut latte. A year prior I was faced with the predicament of having chemo first or surgery first. Today, my most frightening decision was whether I was going to order a spinach or cinnamon-raison bagel (totally went with spinach).
Sometimes I go back in my head and think about the more difficult times. The pure physical exhaustion. I think back to vomiting, abdominal pain, falling down, scar tissue forming and breaking up, NG tubes, needles, that nauseating hospital smell, the way my scalp ached as my hair suddenly fell out, the beeping of the pumps on a chemo IV, the unpredictability of my bowels (ask any cancer patient and they will tell you what’s up)…this list is endless. I also think of the moments where I was immersed in depression and feelings of helplessness. These feelings were especially pervasive when facing the disappointment and angst of not being able to bear my own biological children.
Sometimes I will have flashbacks when I’m driving home from work or trying to get to sleep of some of the darker times. Those raw emotions still linger and will be slow to heal. Even though it’s physically over, it will never be the same emotionally.
Despite these dark, lingering, memories, cancer gave me the ability to make very pure meaningful connections with others in a way that I don’t think I could have otherwise. I felt unmatched love, unmatched kindness, unmatched friendship. This came from family, old friends, new friends, colleagues, strangers for no other reason than we are all part of the human condition. When you are facing your own mortality, not much else matters. The petty bullshit suddenly seems a little less important. It’s not to say that I don’t have my moments. I still sweat the small stuff but perhaps not to the degree that I did previously.
Whenever I talk to other people about my experience I often hear: “I don’t know how you did it! I couldn’t have.” Here is a little secret. You could. I hope you never do, but you could. The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful and with a lot of science, a lot of luck, and a lot of love it’s possible.
One very important message that I want to put out there is that “survivor” is a funny word. I use it for lack of a better term but it is an awkward label to embrace because it implies that I did something that those who died from this condition did not. I’m not a special and unique snow flake. I just did what I was told to do to the best of my ability. There are people that smoke, drink, piss and moan all the way through their cancer and live for years. There are others that have great attitudes, eat organic, meditate, exercise, and embrace emotional support who pass quickly. When it comes down to it, it’s just science and dumb luck. If ever faced with cancer, you do the best you can, to the best of your ability given your constraints and leave the outcome to a power greater than yourself.
I am lucky to be here, I am grateful to be alive and for first time in my life, I am truly happy to be me.