Five Years With Cancer


Reflecting on the lessons learned from the trauma of living with a stage four cancer diagnosis.

Anniversaries let us recognize the large events that add shape to our lives. A lot of people I know celebrate a "cancerversary", the day or month that they received their cancer diagnosis. Others in my extended circle celebrate a "metaversary", the date on which they were given a diagnosis of metastatic cancer.

I find it difficult to celebrate these cancer-associated anniversaries. I was diagnosed with breast cancer December five years ago, and then metastatic breast cancer within a couple weeks of that initial diagnosis. I'd be lying if I said I forget that December is the month in which my life changed from "before cancer" to "with cancer".

Living five years with metastatic cancer, being in continual treatment with all its associated tests, scans, and doctor visits is a difficult life to celebrate in any kind of traditional way. Most of the time, an anniversary recognizes something that is in the past - it is over and now we are remembering it. For me, there is no "over".

When I think about my Decembers of the past five years and for, hopefully, the many more of my future, it's with all the worries that those living with stage four cancer can have. I wonder about who and how many friends I will lose to this disease. I think about the specific losses I've had in my life with cancer and I hope that future losses will not hurt as much. I think about all the progress I've seen in just the past five years and I have hope for what next December, and the Decembers, after it will bring. But I don't think about this life with cancer returning to just "life" because it can't.

That is the reality of my Decembers.

I think about what I could do to recognize the positive changes in my life while also accepting the truth of what I really feel. I can celebrate being alive five years after my diagnosis - a milestone I hoped to reach but knew was unlikely - and also recognize that what I'm actually "celebrating" is an initial trauma and then ongoing life with that trauma.

My Decembers have many of the signs of a traumatic anniversary: flashbacks to the day I learned doctors thought my cancer had spread to my lungs and ovaries; a desire to isolate myself; feeling anxious and on-edge as my subconscious mind adjusts to another December.

To counteract what I know is a difficult month for me, I try to remember to give myself space to feel everything and to name those feelings so that I'm not hiding them away where they'll just bring more pain.

I also have taken time to think about how my memories include lessons in how well I've coped over time with an unexpected diagnosis, how I've learned to be more open with my feelings. I am lucky to have several friends who were sources of support from the start and continue to be unafraid to talk about cancer with me - these people are gifts in my life and I know that reaching out to them during this anniversary month helps with my emotions.

One of the frequent suggestions for those reaching the anniversary of a traumatic event is to visit the site of the trauma. Like most people living with metastatic cancer, I already visit the site of my trauma. This December alone, I have four hospital visits so I'm not eager to add to that with a dedicated cancerversary visit.

Instead, I'll just focus on admitting to the emotions of the past, those likely in the future, and the peace that comes with accepting my "now".

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