"It's cancer this and cancer that." My friend spoke of a woman she knows who, like me, survived cancer. "Cancer has become her identity," she said. "She's the cancer girl. It's been ten years. I feel like telling her: Get over it!"
Whenever two women vent, there's an implicit agreement that we are here to affirm each other. That moment in the conversation when we're aware of our differing opinion is when a silent hiccup occurs. You make a choice. I chose to address it.
I explained that cancer can leave one traumatized. It takes time to heal and often never completely. Perhaps her friend was stuck, but she clearly had a hard time. My friend responded by holding me up as a model, saying I wasn't like that even though I'd endured twice as much treatment as her friend.
I could never judge another cancer patient for not doing well. If I'm doing well at all, I call that a modern-day miracle and feel at its mercy because it could change like the weather. And we all know how the weather is these days: erratic and unpredictable.
In truth, I can relate to my friend's friend to whatever extent. I just don't always show that face to my non-cancer friends. True, I don't think about it constantly like I did the first couple of years, but cancer isn't something you experience like a bad day, or the flu, or a visit from an irritating relative who finally goes home and life goes back to normal. It's on a catastrophic level that leaves you dealing with the collateral damage for the rest of your surviving life.
Sometimes others find us ungrateful when we complain about the after-effects of cancer. Isn't it enough to be alive? I don’t know any survivors, or their families, who aren't grateful that they get to wake up another day, but that doesn't negate the impact of cancer on our lives. For better or worse, and speaking for myself, cancer has tinted the lens through which I interpret any new experience.
I dance and it joins me on the floor. I think: Dance has helped me regain my stamina after chemo or I'm so glad to be alive to enjoy this moment.
I go to work and an ill co-worker is ostracized for not pulling his load. My immediate reaction: I'm glad I didn't work here during treatment. Not a kind place for one with cancer.
My numb fingers struggle to turn the pages of documents because of Taxol-induced neuropathy. There's not a day that goes by that I don't feel the numbness. Some days I walk and feel pain in my big toes. I wince and think: The last time I had Taxol was January 2011, but it's my constant companion today. Is it possible when I was drugged and chemo'd ... we got married?!
I can't brush my hair in front of the mirror each morning without noticing the thin spots where hair never grew back. I apply mascara and notice how sparse and uneven my eyelashes are because that's how they grew back, or didn’t grow back. No matter how rushed I am, I have this fleeting consciousness every single day, even if only for a moment, when I think: Do I look okay? Or like a freak?
Now that sounds ungrateful. We're alive! Isn't that all that matters? Well, no, because being a survivor means we’re alive enough to be annoyed with all the mundane, petty annoyances that bother those who live. We still feel what anyone feels when they look in the mirror and see a decline.
I get that others don't want to hear about it all the time – or at all. Even those with compassion have a statute of limitations by which we should be over it.
My same friend who lost patience with "Cancer Girl" brought me dinner on more than one occasion during chemo. She was there for me. I like her and value our 20-year friendship, but it's clear there are some things that are better left off our lunch menu.
This is one of many things that makes surviving a burden. We're dwelling in cancer consciousness while others simply don't want to hear it. Not anymore. The timing to be over it has nothing to do with us, but everything to do with others having had their fill. I understand that they are the ones who are over it. They're done. And you know what? That's okay. Understood. Enough is enough and that's why we support each other.
Certainly I appear "over it" to the degree that I function somewhat normally in life and hold conversations about any number of non-cancer topics. I don't think about cancer 24/7 as I did early on, but there isn't a day when I don't think about it at all. Rebuilding takes time. Even once the rebuilding happens, it's always there, just more quietly.
Recently a friend invited me and several others to a barbecue in her backyard. Twice I brought up cancer. I felt like one with Tourette's Syndrome. The dreaded words came out of my mouth and I couldn't control the impulse. There it was, again. Cancer! After the second spilling of cancer babble, I became self-conscious. I didn't want my friend to think of me as "the cancer girl." I made a conscious choice to put a lid on it and not bring up the "C" word again, at least not on that occasion.
Conversely, several months ago I spoke with a man whom I met during my Monday night dance class. And there it was, but from him. He shared how glad he was to be alive, to dance and enjoy life, because ten years ago he had thyroid cancer and was extremely ill. I piped up with a big "Me too!" except mine was breast cancer and I was only a few years out from treatment. He then felt the comfort to talk about the collateral damage, the physical maladies he still deals with as a result of treatment. Every time I see him since, there's a nod. An acknowledgment with our eyes. A knowing. We had a moment where we understood some important aspect of the other that others may feel is irrelevant today.
Ten years or five. One year or six months. Once the IVs and chemo ports are removed, the radiation treatments and surgeries finished, we're expected to be done as well. I try not to burden those who'd rather I didn't. Instead I talk to you, my friends and acquaintances, who have also experienced cancer. We too share that nod, even when it's exchanged online. Although I can't see you, I sense that knowing glint in your eye. I'm assured it's okay. We can talk.