San Francisco-based Heather Millar is a breast cancer survivor. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has covered health care and science for many national magazines and websites.
I haven’t written about cancer for about three months. That’s a long time for me.
I haven’t written about cancer for about three months. That’s a long time for me. I’m a journalist, and I’ve been writing regularly about the disease since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.
But suddenly, in late June of this year, I just felt tired of the whole cancer rigmarole. Eight years out from diagnosis, and I felt tired to my bones. Exhausted. Ready to quit.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been NED for years. As far as I know, I’m healthy. But I still participate in cancer groups, read cancer support group mailing lists, subscribe to a “cancer patient” Google alert. I still feel a sharp intake of breath when I learn that an acquaintance has a new diagnosis, or a recurrence.
Do you ever feel sick to death of cancer? Do you just want to go back to that time before a doctor said, “I’m afraid the biopsy shows you have cancer.”? Do you find yourself sick to death of the worry, the uncertainty? Are you tired of people looking at you funny because you have a scarf on your head? Or are you just bored with trying to figure out how to tell people you’ve had cancer without it turning into a huge conversation where you have to reassure the person who doesn’t have cancer? Are you done with side effects? Weight gain? Neuropathy? Sexual dysfunction? Are you over work insecurity, wondering whether to tell your boss or your co-workers?
Well, I did; I was.
I just went on strike. For three months, I didn’t think about cancer.
OK. Let’s be honest, I didn’t think much about cancer.
But then, a couple weeks ago, my teenage daughter woke me up in the wee hours of the morning.
“I just had a nightmare,” she said.
She was shaking, as if she was the 9-year-old she was when I was diagnosed, and not the almost grown, 17-year-old she is today.
“I dreamed that you got cancer again, and that you were going to die.”
GD Cancer. You just had to come roaring back into my life again, didn’t ya? I had to make my annual cancer checkup appointment this week. I found out that another acquaintance had died. Reluctantly, I gave up on giving up.
Having cancer; having had cancer; having a loved one with cancer—it’s all exhausting.
But sticking your head in the sand forever is dangerous. I have an acquaintance who took a cancer vacation that lasted for years. She stopped getting mammograms. You know where this is going: She eventually had a recurrence, and it was much worse because she’d waited until she could feel the tumor, rather than having it detected earlier by regular screening.
I hate it when people say, “It’s all good.” Things are NOT all good. Cancer is not good, for sure. But if I’m honest, cancer also constantly reminds us that time is not infinite. It goads us to make the most of what we have. It challenges us to savor the moment, make that phone call, hug that friend, pursue that dream.
Our society conspires to make everyone deny the reality of death. Those of us who’ve been touched by cancer don’t have that luxury. That’s a gift, really. It gives us clear vision, urgency. Oh yeah, and teenagers with nightmares. Also, gratitude for each day. Like most things in life, it’s a mixed bag, this cancer.
No, we’ll never know if we’ve survived cancer until we die of something else. The trick is to make the time between now and then count.
Take a cancer vacation for a while if you must. It’ll always be there waiting for you when you’re ready to pick it back up. Having had a rest, you’ll be ready to fight another day.