Musings from a three-time cancer survivor.
I know the end of my story. I will die. I just don’t know how or when. The science nerd in me believes I will most likely die of cancer. That’s the obvious answer. However, there was a time, not long ago when I let myself believe that I would live a life without cancer. Since originally being diagnosed in 2013 with ovarian cancer, I had not dared let myself indulge in the belief that I had a long life a head of me. This is a defense mechanism working at its finest. I had already let the floor drop out from me once and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. So, after I was diagnosed, it was easier to brace for bad than be hopeful for good. After my second cancer diagnosis, I double-downed. Especially after I was diagnosed with breast cancer AFTER receiving a preventive double mastectomy to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer from 80% to less than 2%. Imagining I had a long life ahead of me felt like I was torturing myself with grief.
This began to change when I noticed that not allowing myself to dream about growing old was more painful than the strong likelihood that I might not grow old. It was the summer of 2019. It started slowly. I dipped my toe in the pond of the future. For brief moments I indulged in the world of possibilities. It felt reckless. It felt wrong. How dare I imagine a life without cancer. Oh, but I was seduced by the thought. So, I let myself be seduced. Between May 13, 2019 and August 16, 2019 I lived as if I had 10,0000 tomorrows. It was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I could breathe deeply. For the first time in 5 1/2 years (since the first diagnosis), I allowed myself to plan a future. Up until then, I lived in three month increments which is equivalent to the time between doctors’ appointments, blood draws and scans.
My husband and I started to talk about buying property in the mountains with the dream of building a house in which we would grow old together. We spent the summer of 2019 looking at properties. We found a parcel in our dream location. We put down earnest money. We went “under contract”. We started looking for architects. We researched home designs and building materials. It felt so good to be connecting on this dream that represented our future together. For the first time in six years, we put cancer in rear-view mirror. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Maybe, just maybe, I was going to live to see this dream come true.
On August 16, I went into my regularly scheduled oncology appointment giddy, hopeful and optimistic. I was feeling great. I couldn’t wait to tell my oncologist. Up until now, these appointments created massive anxiety. This time, for the first time, I made a concerted effort to not allow fear to steal my happiness. The protocol for these visits is to receive a blood draw to check tumor markers one hour before seeing the doctor (so the results are ready in time for the visit). On this day, the lab was backed up and I soon realized that my test results would not be ready in time for the office visit. So, I went into see the oncologist without that information. We chatted about how I was back to running 4 miles, three times a week and cycling mountain passes on the weekends. He performed the routine physical and declared I was doing great. He said, “I do not need to see you for one year”. Tears filled my eyes because I knew what that meant. He believed I was going to be ok. That in essence my risk for recurrence was low. I skipped down the hallway. I went to schedule my one-year follow up appointment. The scheduler told me with a huge smile on his face that his calendar was not open that far ahead. To not be able to book a follow up appointment because you are doing so well is like crossing the rainbow, finding the pot of gold, getting the golden ticket…I was free.
On the drive back home, the phone rang and I recognized the number. It was the cancer clinic. The first thing my doctor said was “I’m so sorry. Your tumor marker came back high.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I think I stopped listening. I asked him to repeat himself. He said, “I will order a cat scan.” I hung up the phone. I was numb. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t. I wanted to scream. I could’t. I just sat there watching my hopes for the future dissolve with that phone call. For a brief moment, I beat myself up for allowing myself to dream about a cancer-free future. This is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen. I was back to grieving the life that I was not going to get the chance to live.
So, instead of celebrating the purchase of our dream property, my husband held my hand as I faced more blood draws, scans, biopsies and doctors’ appointments. The ovarian cancer recurred after almost six years in remission. I underwent fourteen hours of surgery combined with heated chemotherapy infused directly into my abdominal cavity while under anesthesia. I was in the hospital three weeks due to complications. It’s been eight weeks today. I’m finally coming up for air. I am no longer beating myself up for allowing myself to dream about a future without cancer. I now realize that those three months between May and August were not a dream. They were a gift. I lived fully and deeply without the fear of cancer. It was worth it.