Today marks five years since I was diagnosed. It has been five years since I walked into my doctor’s office as a young, invincible (or so I thought), NYU graduate student and walked out a 28-year-old cancer patient with stage three breast cancer to fight. It doesn’t feel like it has been 5 years. It feels more like it has been 25 years, give or take. These years didn’t “fly” by, they dragged by with many a night spent curled up in a fetal position scared beyond belief that the cancer would return and take my life. That is “survivorship.” That is the ugly truth. The fact is, a cancer diagnosis changes you and it doesn’t change you back when treatment ends. You go on while holding your breath and quietly tiptoe around the beast.
Every time I try and write a post about making it to this point the words always seem to fall short. The last five years have taken me down a road I could have never imagined. This journey has found me at my lowest points and also some of my highest. I have wept and I have laughed. I have gained scars and gained friendships. I have fallen down, repeatedly, but I have continued to get back up no matter how ugly and difficult it was. No one really has a guidebook for young adult cancer survivorship and how it will profoundly impact and shape the trajectory of your life regardless of your attempts to return to your pre-cancer self. But I am here. Five years later, I am here. What an incredible gift. That is a gift many of my friends I met along the way did not receive and I am not sure as to why. There are many days that I wonder, and plead with God for answers. Some days that “survivor’s guilt” is so strong it is almost too heavy a burden to bear.
The weather is turning. The summer season is fading away and autumn, what has always been my favorite season (because PUMPKINS!), is beginning to show its face. Every year around this time, I am reminded of what was lurking around the corner for me five years ago. The smell in the air reminds me, the pumpkin spiced lattes remind me, and the crunch of the leaves reminds me of that fateful day. I am reminded that the day I went to the doctor’s office to receive my biopsy results I had planned to go pumpkin picking that evening – my very favorite autumnal activity—and came out of that appointment with the news that would forever change my life. Needless to say, my pumpkin patch visit that evening was immediately canceled. Instead, my mother and I drove home in shocked silence as tears streamed down my face. When we arrived home, my mom immediately walked out of the house to pace around the yard for what seemed like hours. My dad arrived that night from a business trip and sat by my side. His calming influence during that storm is something I will never forget. My sister flew in the next day for reinforcement. The battle plan was being formulated and the life I had known for twenty eight years ceased to exist.
I remember my surgeon talking about my future the week I was diagnosed, about getting me to two years, five years, even fifty years down the road and I couldn’t see it. As hard as I strained to see that light at the end of the tunnel that he spoke of, I could not. It felt impossible. Unreachable. It was all just pitch black. I was sitting all alone in a very large, dark room and I couldn’t see out. The only way I was able to get out, the only reason I am here writing this post today, is because of the hundreds of hands that selflessly and often forcefully reached their hand towards mine and pulled me out of that dreadful place. Most likely if you are reading this post, you are one of those people, and from the bottom of my heart I thank you and promise that as my forever gift back, I commit myself to reaching out to others in their own dark place and yanking them back out towards the light.
Everyone that goes through something like cancer has to fight like they never have before to reach a milestone like this. I look back at the last five years and think of the things I would have missed out on if I hadn’t had the opportunity to fight and if I hadn’t been lucky: the friends I have met, the best friend I got to marry, the home we have made, the experiences, the trips, the beauty in people and places I have had the opportunity to witness—I would have missed it all. I have seen a very dark side of life that most individuals my age have not had to face. I learned some very important lessons about life, and integrity, and believing in who you are. I learned about confidence and the power we all have within us to move mountains, to change our own course, and, when necessary, to just keep swimming.
There are constant reminders of the battle I went through: the fact that I still get itches in my right arm that I cannot scratch (phantom itches as they are known to cancer survivors), the fact that I will never have full feeling back in that arm, the fact that I have and will continue to face intense periods of respiratory distress (think multiple collapsed lungs), the fact that I can’t cry as much as I used to (I swear, cancer took away most of my tears), and the fact that when I go running I have to hold my right arm up several times mid-jog to get my lymphatic system to cooperate looking like a complete weirdo. Aches and pains still freak me out as I am sure they always will—I will always be looking in my “rearview mirror” so to speak. I just hope the glimpses back become less and less with continued focus ahead.
I am not sure the point of this post other than to check in, exhale, and simply say after five years that “I made it.” Typing that seemingly simple sentence, that I indeed made it to the five year mark, is so simple and yet so incredibly complex. Looking back at the fight, it was well worth it because I am here experiencing this moment and knowing that fact is enough for me right now.
Today, I choose to take a deep breath and remember the strength I found inside myself to get to this point. And to CELEBRATE the journey. It was worth it. I am here. Every test was worth it. Every surgery was worth it. Every trip to the doctor was worth it. Every prick of the needle, every scan, every medication, every lost follicle, every inch of burned skin, every setback, and every heartache was just one more step. I believe we can all get so lost in our own particular brand of mess to see that worth in the journey sometimes and we need others to provide perspective, hope, and clarity. Today, let me be the one to provide that for you. The dark days bring the light. And that light, that beautiful light that is this precious life we are given and the people and experiences that bless it, makes it all worth it. Hugs to you, dear reader. Thank you for coming along this journey with me.