After the War on Cancer

All of us who are called up to the frontlines of the cancer battlefield know that, much like today's military, tours of duty are not set in stone.
PUBLISHED September 22, 2015
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.
I’ve been waiting anxiously for its arrival ever since I hit the official five-year mark of cancer survival. Every day, I check my mailbox and feverishly sift through bills, junk mail, and more bills, hoping that there will be the golden ticket of all golden tickets: my discharge papers from the war on cancer.

All of us who are called up to the frontlines of the cancer battlefield know that, much like today’s military, tours of duty are not set in stone. There is, however, a benchmark that is dangled in front of our weary eyes that has the qualities of both a desert mirage and a whispered promise, "five years ... if you can make it, you’re free." Sort of.

While it’s true that even saying the c-word is like uttering the name of he-who-must-not-be-named in the Harry Potter saga, it’s the other c-word that rarely (if ever) gets mentioned. As a matter of fact, the only time the word cure is used in association with cancer is when it is preceded by the words, "your doctor will never use the word ..." Instead, we hear about "survival rates," "remission" and "progression-free." Rather than receiving a congratulatory letter for our service and its termination, we’re lucky if we get a hearty handshake and assurance that the odds are in our favor.

Given the unending nature of the war on cancer, many survivors develop something akin to PTSD, only without the post and live with "permanent traumatic stress disorder." The antidote for this trauma is to swallow the bitter pill of "there is no cure" and live each day as if it were Armistice — the ending of hostilities — Day. Away from the hum of the radiation machine and the constant drip of the chemo bag, we find the peace of neutrality. Here, we can let down our guard — neither having to fight the disease or the incessant barrage of thoughts that lurk in the shadows — snipers taking aim at our sanity. 

It’s a fragile peace, to say the least. The smallest little bump, lesion or internal ache can awaken the sleeping giant of fear that lives just across the border of the safe haven we create through the love and support of friends and family. With a stiff upper lip and a quivering lower one, we dare to enjoy this peace and even revel in it. Then it dawns on us that after five years or fifty, cancer will always be our neighbor. We understand the options — we can live in fear, live in hope of a cure, live in denial or simply live.  Whether we choose to carry on as a warrior or lucky survivor, we all went eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe, mano a mano with the enemy and were forever changed by the experience. While the medical professionals may never reward our struggles by bestowing the honor of calling us "cured," there comes a time when we appreciate the true meaning of cure which is "care and concern."

In this arena, we are all heroes.
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