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."
Thanks for this very timely and comforting post...I have recently entered this stage of "vigilance" as opposed to "active treatment" and was at a loss for how to describe this feeling of unease. My head says that after a year of treatment, I should be celebrating to be done, but my heart is not feeling it. However, so many times, I find that when someone helps me with the words, I rest easier- and your phrase of "fragile peace" helped me do just that. I look forward to exploring your blog and book. I also am a person who has never been comfortable with the violent terms and imagery that often accompany cancer treatment. I chose to view my cancer as a guest...an unwelcome one, but a guest none the less, who deserves my attention and yes, respect. But who I also would be happy to never see again...:)
I also disagree with the warfare imagery connected to cancer. Perhaps it is more like the "unwelcome guest" you speak of, Toria, the same way I consider the presence of spiders or mice in my home. Not as dramatic as a bomb, but still annoying and stressful. Once detected, you have to rearrange your life in order to address the problem. You might be able to remove the evidence of a past presence but can't completely guard against a reappearance. You lay down the poison to discourage residence, but there's no guarantee. Plus there are the treatment side effects to deal with - the stench and toxicity of bug spray, webs to remove, or that little tray of pellets to manage. I, too, thought that 5-year mark allowed a lowering of my guard. It doesn't help to have had a type of cancer not easily monitored. The recurrence of cancer that has disrupted the past year of my life may have been developing even before passing that 5-year mark, though it didn't make itself vividly known until 7 years past my initial surgery. (I count my mastectomy date rather than diagnosis date, since that was the first attempt to remove the pesky little cancer cells.) So now I experience the metastatic form, both of cancer and treatment. Taking pills every day is more convenient than infusions or radiation treatments, but reinforces the wise renaming of PTSD to Permanent Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's that constant state of vigilance that wears on the body and spirit. As stated above, every new sore or painful twinge makes me wonder if it's the cancer kicking up its heels or something new and unpleasant with which I have to deal. Add to that the more real combat with depression as successive CT scans show tumor shrinkage but not as much as before. Hard to get excited about planning for retirement when you no longer feel you'll live that long. I think the closest I've come to your "fragile peace" is resigned acceptance. Assurance of Eternal Life after death helps, but I still don't look forward to an ugly departure.
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