Deciding how to approach a cancer anniversary can be exciting, scary or maybe just somewhere in between.
Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
Two weeks ago today I hit the big cancerversary. It was the one I wanted since the day I heard the words "you have breast cancer." It was the day I counted down to for years. However, as that day finally approached, I wanted to tiptoe around it. I wanted to whisper about it or maybe even ignore it. I didn't want to drag attention to it, wave my hands around, or make any big, sudden movements. What was I so afraid of? At first, I honestly wasn’t sure. I finally forced myself to break down my feelings about this day as person after person was asking me how I was going to celebrate being a five-year cancer survivor. I kept begging them not to say it out loud and found myself whispering back "Oh, nothing special.”
People look at you funny when you whisper for no reason. I saw that look a lot the last few weeks.
Cancer survivorship is a tough road. It starts at the very beginning when people ask when they can begin calling themselves a survivor. In my opinion it is whatever day feels right for you — the day of diagnosis, the day the cancer was removed from your body, the day you found a lump or the day you finished your treatment (the list goes on and on). I chose the day I was diagnosed. It was the day after my lumpectomy and the day the cancer was found. For me, the treatment was the easy part. I am a planner. The calendar of appointments, the checklists of treatments that needed to be done, the follow-up discussions and the scheduled surgeries made sense to me. They kept me sane during cancer treatment. It gave me the power in an otherwise powerless cancer world. Everyone constantly tells you what to expect. I could read information the doctors gave me, I could ask them about side effects, and I could read information. It was straightforward and in my control. Then, the treatment was over and it literally felt like everyone clapped their hands, smiled, patted my back and sent me on my way right back to normal life. What just happened here? Where are the checklists and appointment schedules? Where is my to-do list to tell me how to cope as a survivor now? What am I supposed to do in this survivorland I know nothing about?
For years I struggled to answer that question and I still fight some of those battles today. I always feel like cancer is just hovering over my shoulder. It’s in the distance, of course, but it is still there if I look hard enough. I walk; it keeps pace in the distance. I walk faster; it speeds up to keep up. I run; it runs. It hasn’t caught me yet, but that fear of it catching up has never left me. It is because of this that I tip toe around cancerversaries. I don’t want to remind the cancer demon that I have hit a massive anniversary in my continued need to outrun it. It’s often hard to put all this into words that my friends and family can understand. There is so much emotion — good and bad — that comes along with being a survivor. I try to put my thoughts together in the form of poetry to help convey the emotions I feel as I continue to navigate cancer survivorship. This one is one of my favorite poems I wrote about survivorship:
The life of a cancer survivor
Is hope flying on a thin kite string.
If you are not careful,
It can bend,
And even break
With a mighty gust of wind.
I think by putting words together to explain the emotions that can be felt in connection with survivorship, it can help not only the cancer survivor, but also the friends and family that want to be there and give support.
When that five-year anniversary came, I may not have celebrated as much as I thought I would have five years earlier. In fact, I purposely made my dentist appointment that day. I didn’t, however, walk on tip toes, whisper about it or pretend it didn’t exist. I announced it on Facebook, I reveled in the congratulations, the smiles and the happy cheers everyone was ready and willing to give me throughout the day. After all, I survived something big and my toes were used instead to do my own special happy dance.