What’s the big deal about celebrating a cancerversary? Inquiring minds want to know, or at least they should, as far as I’m concerned. But before I delve into answering that question, it’s important that one understands the word, “cancerversary.”
A cancerversary is a compound word that describes a significant day of celebration for a person who’s experienced cancer. Cancerversaries can be celebrated anytime and anyplace. The specifics are to be determined by the celebrant. Some celebrants choose to celebrate cancerversaries annually on the specific day of diagnosis. Others choose to celebrate annually on the day of surgery when the cancer was removed from the body. Some choose to celebrate monthly and others celebrate day-by-day or minute-by-minute. Cancerversaries are as unique as the individuals who choose to celebrate them.
But cancerversaries aren’t just a time of celebration; they’re also a time of reflection and remembrance. For some survivors and those who love them, cancerversaries can be emotionally challenging.
Speaking from personal experiences, this year is a milestone cancerversary for me. On July 9, 2019, I celebrate five years of being cancer-free. To coin a phrase often heard when my children were teens, “It’s a big, fat, hairy deal.” (In essence, that means it’s a super-important, really awesome, ostentatious occasion that everyone needs to know about.) And I agree.
I’ve chosen to celebrate my cancerversary each year on the day of my surgery. Technically, according to many breast cancer websites, I could have chosen to celebrate the day of diagnosis because they say, as of that point, I was officially a breast cancer survivor, but I didn’t see it that way. The moment the tumor was removed from my body, I saw myself as having survived the disease. Again, it’s a personal preference. Those with cancer get to make the choice for the day they choose to call themselves “survivor” and for the day they celebrate their survivorship.
In the past, as each cancerversary approached I found myself in a different mental state. For my first year post-cancer, I was ecstatic to have reached the point of celebrating my very first cancerversary. My family threw a big party; we wore matching t-shirts to commemorate the event and it was a day we’ll always cherish. The second year, I was excited but cautiously trepidatious. It almost felt like celebrating for a second time was too good to be true. When my third cancerversary rolled around I almost took it for granted, and by the time the fourth celebration came, although extremely grateful to still be alive, it was almost becoming old hat. This year is different.
A few days ago, I noticed myself becoming very emotional. In the back of my mind, I knew the reason. This was the week I’d celebrate five years of being cancer-free. I didn’t expect myself to be on the verge of tears every day as the barrage of memories from four years ago began to resurface.
As a breast cancer survivor, one of my coping mechanisms has always been to take care of the business at hand and move on. I’ve never been one to remain stuck in the past. That’s why I was overwhelmed when feelings and experiences from cancer surgery and treatment came barging in. I thought I’d processed all of those feelings but apparently, there were still some that begged attention and surfaced at unexpected times.
For example, while sitting outside in the bright sunshine the other day watching my granddaughter play in the pool, I felt the warmth of the sun on the right side of my neck. In the hot Georgia weather, that area of exposed skin was heating up rather quickly as temperatures rose to the mid-nineties. Within a few minutes, my mind traveled back in time and remembered the pain experienced halfway through radiation treatments. My skin had been severely burned and treatments had to be stopped for several weeks so healing could take place. Though only a memory, in those minutes by the pool, I was transported back in time to weeks of trauma and as I relived that time, I began to cry. Not only was I thinking about the pain of the skin burns, but I was also remembering the daily trips to the radiation clinic for almost eight weeks. I remembered how alone I felt and how embarrassed I was at the time to be vulnerable and exposed on the table under the linear accelerator. I remembered how fatigue commandeered my body and how useless I felt.
Event after event prompted my memory to relive cancer-related details this week, but the days before a cancerversary aren’t always hurtful. There can be memories of funny things that pop up or awkward moments that caused intense laughter. Each person will have his or her own unique memories to share or keep private, and as the anniversary of that special day comes close, those memories are bound to come to the forefront of the mind.
Celebrating a cancerversary is a big, fat, hairy deal to many survivors. Many of those who have been through the rigors of cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment and the various degrees of trauma associated with cancer find a specific time of celebration to be cathartic. Some choose to celebrate alone and others choose to allow others to join in the merriment, but what survivors and the general public understand is this – celebrating a cancerversary marks a specific time and a specific event in the life of a person who was totally caught off guard by the fact that cancer had taken up residence in his or her body. And after the tumor was removed, various procedures and treatments were necessary to prevent a recurrence of the disease. As these things happened, the person affected by cancer endured unexpected challenges, often accompanied by physical and emotional pain. In order to live, the person gave exorbitant amounts of strength, determination, and resolve. So, you see, celebrating a cancerversary is not something to be taken lightly. It is a big, fat, hairy deal, especially to those of us who’ve had the honor and privilege of celebrating a cancerversary.
Whether this is your first opportunity to celebrate a cancerversary or whether you’ve celebrated many, please keep looking forward to those wonderful milestones. And never let anyone admonish you for making it a big deal – because it is a big deal and those of us who’ve been there will be celebrating right along with you.
There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate a cancerversary. Go out to dinner, throw a party, take a trip, enjoy some alone time; whatever works for you to commemorate this wonderful accomplishment in the fight against cancer is yours to decide. And if anyone gives you grief, tell them the reason you’re celebrating is because it really is a big, fat, hairy deal and watch their reaction. If nothing else, it will give you a moment of joy to add to your celebration.