A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a train on my way from my now-hometown of Baltimore to New York City to defend my master’s thesis at New York University and I looked around at the individuals that surrounded me. My eyes first landed on the man across the aisle reading the Economist. I could tell, by his impervious gaze, that he actually understood every concept he was reading. I was envious, I was impressed, I nodded my head approvingly. He was obviously heading into the city to take advantage of the rest of us that still haven’t quite figured out how to make the best of these hard economic times, or just life in general. Next to him was a woman who was pregnant and, well, to put it simply, flawless. She made pregnancy look effortless. Pregnancy is never supposed to look this great, I thought, but she owned it. Much like Tom Brady wearing UGGs—it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it just works. Next to me was my dear mother by my side as always. She was snapping pictures of me and beaming with pride as I headed to New York to defend my thesis, earn yet another degree, and finish something I had started three years prior. We were just basking in the moment, and celebrating all the way down the tracks.
For those of you who may not have picked up on it, I moved to New York right after law school to get my master’s degree at NYU (and, yes, I like school, thanks for asking). While residing in the East Village of Manhattan, I had the experience I think every twenty-something should have: I lived in an apartment so small I believe it was originally designed for gnomes; I lived off of soup and whatever protein bars happened to be on special that week; I had a “pet” mouse named Charlie; and I encountered some of the most extraordinarily interesting and brilliant people I will probably ever meet, so it was all worth it. I studied at NYU and for a year the little life I had made for myself in the big city made sense. The following fall I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Pump the brakes, WHAT!?!?
So, I moved home. I left New York in an abrupt way and headed back to Ohio where I was born. I moved back into the house I was raised in. My doctor initially suggested that school would need to be put on hold for the time being. I was adamant about staying in school during treatment. I wanted to complete my degree. He told me it was up to me, but after going through my mastectomy and the recovery that involved knowing that was just the beginning, I knew that I had no choice in the matter—school would have to be put on pause much like the rest of my life. My life was treatment. Treatment became my life.
But, fast-forward to present day, and there I was. After being diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, after undergoing a mastectomy, after losing my hair, after accumulating the physical and emotional scars that cancer leaves behind, I was on this train back to New York City surrounded by all those “cancer-free” people I was so envious of while I was home last year, lying on the bathroom floor sick and tired of being so sick and tired.
During treatment I often thought of those lucky ones out there who were just going about their daily routine. The simple yet beautiful monotony of those repetitive days seemed so incredibly far beyond my reach. I wondered when commuting to work, or buying groceries, or planning things with my friends would ever become the norm again. Would I ever get to experience those things again? Those simple experiences that make up life seemed so inaccessible, but yet were all I wanted. The feeling I experienced in that moment, on that train surrounded by those people I longed to return to during treatment, realizing what I had conquered was completely overwhelming. I was finally back. I was FINALLY BACK on the other side. People didn’t see me as the cancer patient. People just saw me as some girl who voluntarily bobbed her hair who was scurrying around reading her thesis, developing and honing arguments. They could not see my scars; they did not know what I had been through. They did not know I took an extremely undesired break from life last year. For all they knew I had been on that train alongside them every day.
Being back in the city was like walking through a very loud and trendy time capsule of my life—it emphasized everything I had experienced right before I was diagnosed. New York City is the dividing line between Abby pre-cancer and Abby post-cancer. The first time I returned to New York after I was diagnosed I spent a majority of my time there crying as I was completely overwhelmed by what the city symbolized: the loss of my good health, my innocence, and that feeling of invincibility. This return to the city, however, was much different. This time I pulled it together and instead of immersing myself in the sadness of what my life used to be, I turned the other cheek and experienced the city for what it means to me now. The trip was a huge success. My thesis defense went superbly and I graduated. The city means, therefore, in a very palpable way, that I have made it, I am allowed to be happy, celebrate being free, and fully embrace the Abby I have become after all this, which I fully believe is the Abby I was always meant to be.
Today marks one year exactly since I finished treatment completely. Last year, on June 4, I went into the hospital for radiation for the very last time. The following day felt very strange, as I did not head to the hospital for my daily appointment with the laser beam. After treatment I felt lost. I did not know what my role was anymore. If I am not the cancer patient, or the “cancer cheerleader” as I was called, then who am I? Funny thing is, I am still not entirely positive. I have reached many milestones for sure, but I realize life is just this ever-evolving, fluid set of treasured moments. My role is not the “cancer cheerleader.” Rather, my role is to share these precious moments that make up my life with others, make someone’s own journey a little easier by utilizing what I have learned throughout this whole cancer mess, and, of course, loyally stand by the Dallas Cowboys as they botch yet another season.
My friends make fun of me because I literally celebrate everything. Last September, I had a party for my one-year cancerversary–the one-year anniversary after I was diagnosed. Last October, I celebrated the one-year anniversary after I had my mastectomy. Last December, I had another party for the anniversary of when I started chemo. Then, in March, I had yet another gathering to commemorate the day I finished chemo. My 30th birthday party literally shut the entire city of Baltimore down. (OK it may have had something to do with the fact that it was opening day for the Orioles, but still, it was a big shindig.)
In addition, there have been many parties and dinners in-between to celebrate random things like, “Oh I think last year on this day I noticed my first post-chemo nose hair sprout we gotta DO something to celebrate!!!!” (Yes, you do lose your nose hair during chemo.) Or, “Oh we HAVE to go celebrate the fact that one year ago today I weaned myself off of [insert prescription drug of choice here].” But, what am I doing today, you ask? Today all I am doing is basking in the beauty that is another precious day of life and remembering how hard I fought to get here. And, OK, OK, if you know me at all, I will probably end up getting together with my friends and dancing and laughing the night away. It may become a party, because that is just how us cancer survivors roll. We recognize how necessary celebrations are because we have been through so many moments where things are going just so terribly wrong. So, here is to celebrating everything because, well, why not?