You have cancer. Exactly 10 years ago today, I heard those frightening words. I was driving north on US 23 and might as well have been slammed by the semi that was traveling next to me.
Nine months later — after being diagnosed with an “incurable” form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that resisted two back-to-back chemotherapy regimens — I was rescued by a new treatment that came along in the nick of time: radioimmunotherapy, developed by UM’s Dr. Mark Kaminski. I’ve been healthy since.
So much for “incurable,” although my medical records indicate that I have achieved “durable, long-term remission.” But it doesn’t really matter what my records say because a chart stamped “cured” isn’t a prerequisite for living a full, happy life.
As I reflect back on the last decade, I’ve learned, among many things, that cancer may leave our bodies but it never leaves our lives. Far from it. For survivors, the followup medical tests that forever punctuate our lives are reminders of what was and what might be again. I know. I had a CT scan just two days ago. Thankfully, it confirmed that I’ve been disease free for 9 years, 3 months and 26 days. But who’s counting?
I’ve also learned that it’s not hard for us to become cancerchondriacs. Ordinary aches and pains can play such havoc with our emotions that we secretly rejoice when a pain in our belly is simply gas.
As a friend of mine says, “When your world has crashed before your eyes, it’s hard to remember that anything could be something other than cancer.”
Another adds, “We’re scarred by our diagnosis. Every ache is a recurrence. Luckily, most of the time, reality is not as bad as our fears, but we become worry warriors.”
No matter how different our experiences, we survivors have at least one thing in common: cancer shoves mortality in our faces and shatters our naive illusion that we can always count on our bodies to cooperate. It forces us to live with uncertainty as our constant companion. And that’s easier said than done.
Every one of us would love a guarantee that cancer will never recur, but no such guarantee exists. As long as we’re alive, illness — of any kind — is a risk of life itself and death will always be a certainty. It seems to me that what I do between now and then is much more important than worrying about the inevitable.
And so I’ve learned to plan — to live — with purpose and priority alongside a couple of lessons that cancer forced me to accept: we can’t always shape our own destinies nor are we always in control of our lives, much as we’d all like to believe. Quick, concrete answers and predictable outcomes aren’t always possible, much as we all want them.
But cancer also taught me that impossible is simply a word that may or may not be relevant.
And it gave me the freedom to savor the present like never before. After all, none of us knows what’s around the next bend in life, so why not enjoy the present?
Yes, cancer taught me many lessons, including that adjusting to the experience doesn’t happen once and then it’s over. I wish it were that easy, but putting cancer into the context of our lives is an ever-changing, ongoing process because it’s one of those life-altering events that can change the way we feel, the way we think, the way we see ourselves and even the way we see the world.
I’ve accepted that cancer will always be a part of my life. But it will never define it. I refuse to be paralyzed by what-if’s or to live in anticipation of my inevitable demise. On the contrary. Although it’s impossible to forget the pain and anguish that cancer inflicted on my family, being rescued from the jaws of death leaves a lasting sense of wonder and zest for life.
It leaves a lasting sense of gratitude to the many people who helped me through the most difficult time of my life, including my husband who, during my illness, stopped his life many times to help me rescue mine and my extraordinary medical team, led by Dr. Kaminski, who, for all these 10 years, has cared not only for me but also about me.
It leaves a sense of excitement at the scientific advances that have been made in this last decade, but also a sense of frustration that unraveling the mysteries of cancer is an agonizingly slow process.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many physician/researchers and scientists, and I’ve been awed by the persistence and passion that drive them. And I’ve been awed by many survivors and their families who have faced challenges with remarkable grace and dignity, many of whom have re-directed their own lives to help those who follow in our footsteps.
Collectively, they’ve shown me that cancer gives context to compassion, and they’ve shown me more of that than I ever dreamed possible. They’ve shown me the very best of humanity and the resilience of human beings.
I would never have cancer by choice, but having had it, I wouldn’t trade the view of the world that it gave me for anything.
Andy Dufresne got it right when he said in The Shawshank Redemption, “You can get busy living, or you can get busy dying.” I choose to stay very busy living.
Betsy de Parry is the author of Adventures In Cancer Land and the producer of Candid Cancer reports for the PBS show A Wider World which airs in this area on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on WTVS. Find her on Facebook or email her.