Cancerversaries can stir up difficult emotions for many cancer survivors. One pancreatic cancer survivor offers advice on how to cope with these feelings.
Much like surviving cancer, we also must survive our cancerversaries. Our journey is book-ended by two momentous dates: the day we got told, “I’m sorry. You have cancer,” and the day our treatments were in our rear-view mirrors. Both dates are filled with pungent meaning. On the first date, we realized we had an expiration date.
We wondered if we would make it, or if a group of close friends would be gathering all too soon to tell stories about us. On the second one, we celebrated getting through the gauntlet of never-ending trips to the linear accelerator vault and chemo room.
But all too soon we realized our long wait had just begun. While in treatment we were “in the fight.” But now out of it, we are “in the long wait.” Will our cancer remain at bay, or will it come roaring back when we least expect it?
Beyond this ever-present fear my cancer might return, these cancerversaries bring a rush of memories of friends who weren’t as fortunate. Those who didn’t make it, some succumbing during or shortly after their treatments ended. Some call this “survivors’ guilt.” But one thing I know — the pain is real.
One good friend, who I’ll call Judy, bent down to pick something up off the floor and heard a rush of liquid inside her. As a former RN and medical missionary in Haiti, she knew this meant trouble. Soon testing confirmed her worst fear – she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. Much like watching one of those thriller movies where the main character stays just outside the reach of peril, I read her CaringBridge posts about her ups and downs through my fingers. Born the same year as me, 1954, surgery and chemo held it at bay for four years until she succumbed to it at the age of 59. It was during her last year that I was told I had pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer so few survive it is considered a death sentence. She inspired me to face down my cancer.
Another good friend I’ll call Joey, also a pastor, walked with me during the murky days of my treatments. He often visited me in the hospital, praying with me not as a pastor but as a close friend. Later we got together for lunch or coffee when we could. Three years ago, I sent him an email note asking if he had time for a quick lunch? His reply startled me. He told me he had just begun treatment for a sarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. After surgery to remove it, initially he responded well to his treatments but soon it became apparent the battle was turning against him. At 52, he left his wife and three teenage kids to move forward alone without him there to guide them. Sadness ripped through me.
Each year, my cancerversaries always remind me of them, as well as others taken too soon. While I remain grateful to have survived thus far, I ache with sorrow for the families left behind. The lives not lived. The births, graduations, and weddings not seen. The grandbabies not held. I wonder why I made it and others didn’t?
So how should we face our cancerversaries?
1. Accept they are real.
While keeping a positive attitude is essential to surviving a run-in with cancer, mindless positivity is not. As much as we might try to fake our brain into thinking everything is OK, it knows what we feel deep down perhaps more so than we do. So simply trying to ignore these dates and push them away as though they never happened won’t work. It is critical to face them down, understand they are part of who we are and accept they are real.
2. Talk them out.
I have been fortunate in that I have a couple of close friends who have walked with me through this. If you don’t have someone, please, please find someone. It could be a long-ago high school classmate, someone from your group of good friends or someone from your church, synagogue or mosque. I have found there are people around us who care about our well-being and are interested in helping us where they can. They want to help but hang back because they don’t want to invade our privacy. They wait for us to ask for help. To keep us from sinking, we must invite them into our journey to talk about not only our ups but also the downs. Talk them out.
3. Journal or write about them.
I am not quite sure how this works, but there is something restorative about putting our thoughts down on paper via a journal or getting them out there to a friend via a text, an email or a private Facebook post. For those who are brave, there are countless opportunities to post things on the internet. Deep in my treatments, feeling in the low end of the dump, I used CaringBridge to update my family and friends. Through the years I have been surprised by some of the connections I have made with people out there who are struggling and need to connect with someone who understands the mess they are in. My only wish is that those who have gotten the worst news of their lives have found some solace in my words of hope. Journal or write about them.
4. Seek help if they are overwhelming.
For some reason, the shame around seeking help is unrelenting. You would think when our world seems to be collapsing on us, we would reach out. But sadly, many don’t. Much has been written about how a bout with cancer can trigger depression. If you are experiencing this or someone you are caring for is in the thick of it, SEEK HELP!
Mere words fail to express the ecstasy of surviving cancer. It is something to be celebrated for sure, but it also brings sad baggage of both dread and fear. Ways to survive our cancerversaries include accepting they are real, talking them out, journaling or writing about them and seeking help if they are overwhelming.
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