25 years of survivorship

It's 25 years ago this week that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I try to get my brain around what that means, what I come up with is that this life, as I know it, started 25 years ago. I sometimes wonder who I would have been had I not had breast cancer, which so shaped my life. I have joked that for me it was cancer as a career move. But what it really became was my mission.I know from going through this disease with friends over the years that not everyone diagnosed with breast cancer becomes an advocate. Some picked up where they left off; they resumed whatever direction their life was going.When I was diagnosed, I had just become a mother for the first time at 36. After a mastectomy and treatment, I had a hard time making sense of the attitude back then that I should just get on with my life. My life was gone, replaced by an abnormal fear of dying that took over my life for a few years – until my surgeon started a support group in 1989, the first in the city of Dallas.From those women, I learned that cancer is a dual journey. The medical part has to do with cure (or as one surgeon said, Can You Remove Everything). The other part has to do with healing, the soul and the spirit of you that determines how a mortality issue will shape you in the future.I learned in that support group that I had made good decisions when it came to cure, but had not even started the healing part, which meant feeling what had happened to me.I learned this from one woman in the group named Marilyn, who joined the group when she had been living with metastatic breast cancer for nine years. Today, that's not unusual, but in 1990 it was very unusual. Marilyn got 18 months remission from each drug she took, and back then there weren't that many. She had an agreement with her oncologist that he would tell her when it was time to get her photo albums together. She figured it would take about six months.When he finally gave her the signal that it was time, I expected her to fall apart, but she didn't. In fact, she said something that changed my life."Kathy, there are worse things than dying." "Really," I remember saying, "How can that be?" The idea of leaving my child was one I could not hold in my mind."Worse than dying," she said, "is dying without having lived."Dying without having lived.And that for me became cancer's gift and what I am most grateful for in the 25 years since my diagnosis. I lived. When I sat at the ice rink watching my daughter skate around and around and then land an axle, I didn't feel guilt. I felt present.I was a present mother.I also bought a motorcycle, something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager and rode most places on the back of my brother's Honda.I started taking things out of my bucket list at 40 instead of 60.Cancer's gifts in the past 25 years include helping start two nonprofits in Dallas to help those with cancer. Writing a book about my experience and that of other women going through breast cancer. Meeting the most amazing women in the world as I traveled around speaking and doing my one woman show about having cancer. Seeing what courage and hope really look like.And watching my daughter grow into a wonderful young woman who has traveled with me to London and Australia and now works in New York City.The best of cancer's gifts.I know what's important.When my daughter Kirtley turned 21 in 2007, she was in the midst of her junior year of college in New York City while I was writing and editing CURE in Dallas. We talked and since her birthday fell in the middle of the week, we agreed we would celebrate another time. It was sad for both of us since it would be the first birthday we would not spend together.And, I just couldn't do it. I took the last flight out of Dallas on the day before her birthday and arrived outside the brownstone where she lived at 11:45 p.m. Since she had a door that opened to the street, I could see through the closed curtains that she and her roommates, who knew I was coming, were up and about. At midnight I called her from in front of her apartment to say happy birthday."Mom, I can't believe you won't be here for my birthday," she said. I replied that "if she wished hard enough she might find me on her doorstep."She opened the door and grabbed me, saying "You're here, you're here."I was.I spent the night, we had breakfast, she went to class, and I went to LaGuardia to catch my flight home. I spent $400 on a round-trip flight, $50 on round-trip cab fare, $50 for breakfast for two, $100 to slip in her pocket for her birthday. Being with my daughter on her 21st birthday --- you got it. Priceless. Thanks Marilyn.