How many times each day do you become aware of your cancer? The answer, of course, is highly varied and dependent upon the severity, age, type and treatment of the disease. There is no measurable response to this question, but perhaps there is something to be learned by asking.
In the first months after my diagnosis of male breast cancer, my thoughts were virtually hijacked by the uncertainty of my future. That uncertainty hasn’t changed after two-and-a-half years, and the fact is, it never will. But the intensity of those thoughts and fears has softened significantly.
Scientists refer to this lessening of a reaction to something we experience as “sensory adaptation.” If you smell cookies baking in the oven, that first rush of delight begins to fade after a few minutes. They never smell quite the same after you walk into the kitchen and tickle your olfactory nerves with the aroma of hot, sugary dough, molten chocolate and sweet vanilla. The excitement of your new car or the impact from the experience of watching a live Broadway musical lose their intensity before long. The pleasure is diffused by time. And so it goes with pain, fear, anxiety and doubt.
The risk of cancer returning may be eased a great deal by the so-called five-year survival marker, but let’s face it, once you have joined the cancer club, your membership is forever open.
But time does heal. And after a while, though, the specifics are different for all of us and we forget to check the clock every day.
At night, when the tightness of my mastectomy scar and the numbness under my left arm wake me, I remember that I am a cancer survivor. When I reach up to turn on the light switch but am hindered by the inability to fully stretch my arm, I am reminded of my cancer. On days when I’m a little stiff from line dancing class or my headache seems to last a little longer, I am reminded of my cancer. When I write an essay or blog, talk to other survivors or get news of yet another clinical trial or promising treatment, I am reminded of my cancer.
But like those cookies baking in my kitchen, the memories of my cancer move on as I turn my attention to living right now in this minute.
Today I am cancer-free, or at the very least, symptom-free. And when negative thoughts of my disease burst forth like the buzzing alarm clock on my nightstand, I can reach over and hit the “snooze” button.
It’s not that I’m going back to sleep, but more like I’m awakening to yet another wave of life, to the possibilities and to the opportunities that arise. And right there at that very moment, time, and yes even cancer, cease to exist.