Today is five years since I was diagnosed with cancer. Or rather since the phone call from my GP saying the CT scan had turned up a mass in my abdomen, a big one, and I should waste no time in contacting the oncologist she then referred me to. Her call came in about 8PM. I didn’t get much sleep that night.
A week later a surgeon was taking a swollen lymph node out of my groin for biopsy, and a week after that I checked into Summit for my first treatment. Sometime in between I met said oncologist for the actual diagnosis: follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma, bulky, stage 3B. Beatable, he said. That was the only word I really paid attention to.
So far he’s been right. With the exception of a small false alarm in fall 2016 my checkups have consistently shown NED (no evidence of disease). I’m hoping for the same from the one at the end of this month, just as I’m hoping he’ll then say don’t come back for another six months. September will place me at the end of the five-year post-treatment window and right now that’s as far ahead as I’m thinking.
Last night I went to a friend’s birthday party: a comfortable affair of about 30, many of whom I’ve come to know, love and depend on during these five years of fear and stress. Though while early into my treatment I realized that cancer was for me likely to be mostly a big pain in the ass, a life-disrupter for sure but not necessarily much more, that assessment proving true to date hasn’t precluded me being afraid throughout and close to breaking at points. That’s the nature of being a cancer patient, NED or not.
This morning I’m thinking of the two friends with cancer I spoke with at the party. One’s had it for about two years, the other a lot longer, and both have already suffered considerably. My own fear is a mere shadow of what they live with, the terror that what they have will kill them. Last night I was struck with how good each of them looked but that’s not a reliable indicator; with the advances in cancer treatment a lot of patients I’ve met haven’t fit the image I grew up with – gaunt, shriveled, pale, listless – yet so much of the time you don’t know how hard someone is fighting to look the way they do until you sit down and talk.
A person beloved to me, to many at the party, died of cancer in December. He was a man of great vitality, someone I’d long thought of as essentially indestructible, yet once diagnosed he had about six months to live. Brutally unfair, which heartbreakingly is also the nature of being a cancer patient.
What I’ve learned these five years is to embrace what you have, who you have, while you still have the strength for it. No matter what the scans may show, you don’t know how many months or years you’ve got left. Up until that call from the GP I hadn’t given this much thought but now it often seems that in the time since I’ve thought about little else.
(Republished from my personal Facebook account.)