The 5-Year Mark of My Cancer


My 5-year mark prompted me to reflect on my entire experience…and how far I have come.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Natasha Carlson

This summer marked my 5-year anniversary of being diagnosed with cancer. It’s almost eerie to think that it has been that long since my diagnosis. During those first dark days, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it from one day to the next, much less to a 1-year or 5-year mark. Back then, I would read stories of cancer survivors and wonder how they managed to stay so calm, and how they ever made it through the emotional whirlwind that comes in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis, to reach the point of being a long-term survivor. “Long term” was a designation that seemed unreachable at the time. That’s the thing about cancer: time seemed to absolutely stop immediately after receiving that terrible news. Everyone else seemed to go on, living their lives, and I felt that mine was put on hold. My days, my nights, my thoughts, my very being were consumed by cancer. I could not fathom the idea that I would ever get beyond this.

Slowly, very slowly, the days turned into weeks and then months. I looked at this journey as a series of tasks that I needed to complete. Have appointment with surgeon. Check. Prepare for surgery. Check. Have surgery. Check. Recover from surgery. Check. Start physical therapy. Check. Follow up appointments. Check. Start medication. Check. Then, more surgery, more recovery. This cycle repeated several times over the course of three years. What I hadn’t realized until much later is that because I was so focused on completing tasks, physically recovering from multiple surgeries, I neglected to pay attention to another type of healing and recovery that is equally important. The emotional trauma that accompanies this entire experience cannot be underestimated and processing it is a critical and necessary step in being able to truly heal.

This may have been the most difficult part of my cancer journey. There is no checklist, no rulebook that tells a person how to process the entire experience. Cancer is very isolating, and it doesn’t operate on anyone’s schedule. Often it seemed to be one step forward, two steps back. Making net negative progress in emotional healing is quite disheartening and demoralizing. But this is the micro-perspective. Although there may have been setbacks in the day-to-day experience, when I actually took the time to deliberately contemplate the entire progression, the “macro-perspective”, so to speak, I was then able to recognize that progress WAS being made, however slowly it may have been. Eventually, I accepted that this was what healing looked like for me: a series of small victories interspersed by some small (and some not so small) setbacks.

I remember asking other survivors how long it was until they had a day where they managed to NOT think about cancer. Not surprisingly, everyone had different answers. And then one day, I realized that it had happened for me. This was perhaps a symbolic finish line, or at least a notable achievement along the way. I did silently mark the 5-year point in my head as the day came and went. Some people want to throw a party and have a loud celebration. For me, a quiet note was just fine with me as I have deliberately worked to allow cancer to occupy less and less of my thoughts and take up an ever-decreasing amount of emotional bandwidth.

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