Celebrating Milestones and the Doubts That Linger: (Almost) Three Years Cancer-Free


I may be ready to sign up for a big race to celebrate three years cancer-free, but it turns out that the fear of recurrence may never be far from my mind.

It's been three years this week. Three years since I heard the words, "You have cancer." I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in 2012, and since it is such an aggressive form of breast cancer, the first three-year period is the most critical for recurrence. It's a little nastier than the breast cancers that can lie dormant for five, ten or even twenty years. If it doesn't get you fast, you're probably fine. While I’m not completely out of the woods, I can see the clearing ahead.

Only a runner for a few years before I was diagnosed, I managed to run all through chemo. I didn't go as far, or as fast, or as frequently as I would have liked, but I ran. My doctor told me that running would help fight the fatigue that goes hand in hand with cancer treatments. And perhaps it did help me become physically stronger. But really, I ran because it made me feel stronger emotionally — like I was conquering something by being out on the trails even though I'd had chemo the day before.

As I approached my three-year cancerversary, I thought that I'd run a half marathon to celebrate — to show the cancer that I really had conquered it. But my cancerversary is in the fall. If there's one thing that I hate about running, it's being hot. Training in the summer is hard for me, and I just lacked the discipline to get up early enough to beat the heat this summer. In truth, while the three-year cancerversary is definitely a milestone for me, my diagnosis date is not where I start counting my three years. I start counting my three years in March 2013, after I'd finished chemo, had a double mastectomy and was declared cancer-free. So I decided perhaps a March half marathon would be a smarter move — better training schedule and more appropriate time to celebrate.

At my running buddy's encouragement, I found a race the day before my three-year cancer-free day and we agreed to run it together. I headed to the registration page and filled out all the pertinent info. Then one field stumped me: bib personalization. I'm sure there are a lot of fun or clever things you could put on your bib above your number. I imagined spectators yelling what they see on the bib as runners pass. Of course, given my motivation for the race, everything that came to mind had to do with cancer. I would have gone for something along the lines of "stronger than cancer" or my mantra from my last race, "stronger than my body." Or even just the simple, "suck it cancer." But those were too long. The only thing that could meet character requirement was "cancer-free." In fairness, this race is supposed to be in celebration of three years cancer-free. In celebration of being over a major hump — getting out of that most critical window.

I actually came up with all that pretty quickly. Yet I remained stumped, staring at that blank field. I could not type the letters into the box. The race date is over six months away. A lot can happen in six months. I'm confident enough to enter the race. And yet the constant nagging, the anxiety of the recurrence that is ever lurking, would not let my fingers type those words. What if I'm not cancer-free in six months? I can promise you, if I’m not cancer-free, I'll still do everything in my power to make it to the finish line of that race to prove that I can — to prove that I'm stronger than cancer. But I don’t love the idea of doing it in a bib proclaiming "cancer-free" for all to see, mocking me.

I wish that I'd have had the confidence to fill in that field. I didn’t let it stop me from finishing my registration. But my bib will be blank on race day. Maybe at the last minute, I'll personalize it the good old fashioned way with a Sharpie.

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