In 2010, I discovered I had cancer in both breasts. Two tumors, unrelated to each other. Just twice lucky. They removed the tumors and the associated breasts, gave me very attractive fake replacements. Much perkier than the old ones in an artificial implant sort of way. I have a little ID card for my breasts, like they have their own personae. Maybe they do. Thus, a little more than seven years after the siege began, I’m officially a survivor. Almost but not quite.
My mother died of metastasized breast cancer. My brother died of pancreatic cancer 10 years ago, having never gotten as old as I am. This is not a reassuring family history.
All chronic illnesses make you paranoid. The thing that’s so insidious about cancer is its absence of symptoms. The possibility that it is growing somewhere in your body and you won’t know it’s there until it’s too late, is about as scary as disease gets. Nor is it a baseless fear. I had no idea I had cancer — much less in both breasts — until it was diagnosed twice during a two-week period. One diagnosis of cancer is hard to handle. A second diagnosis a week later is like getting whacked over the head with a bat. It leaves you stunned, scrambling to find someplace to stand where the earth isn’t falling out from under you.
I don’t think most of us are afraid of dying per se. We are afraid of the journey we will have taken to get there. We’re afraid of pain, suffering, the humiliation of dependence and gradual loss of control of our own bodies. After having one or more close encounters with the dark angel, no one is eager to feel the brush of those wings again.
We are called survivors, which means that we aren’t dead yet. The term is meaningless. Put into perspective, we are all survivors. Anyone could be felled by a heart attack or run over by an out-of-control beer truck tomorrow. The end of the road is identical for all living creatures; it’s only a matter of when it will be and what cause will be assigned. Everyone is in the same boat. If you’ve been very sick, you are more aware of your mortality than those who who’ve been blessed with uneventful health, but no one gets a free pass. The odds of death are 100% for everyone.
Recovering from serious illness is a bumpy road. Each of us has a particular “thing” we find especially bothersome. For me, it’s dealing with well-wishers who ask “How are you?” If they wanted an answer, it might not be so aggravating, but they don’t want to hear about my health or my feelings about my health — which are often as much the issue than anything physical.
They are being polite. So, I give them what they want. I smile brightly and say “Just fine thank you.”
I have no idea how I am. All I know — all I can possibly know — is that for the time being, I am here. To the best of my knowledge, nothing is growing anywhere it’s not supposed to be. Six-and-a-half years after a double mastectomy, I am in remission. That’s as good as it gets.
The real answer for those of us who have had cancer, heart attacks, and other potentially lethal and chronic ailments is “So far, so good.”
That is not what anyone wants to hear. We are supposed to be positive. Upbeat. You are not supposed to suffer from emotional discomfort. Why not? Because if you aren’t fine, maybe they aren’t, either. They have a bizarre and annoying need for you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed no matter how you actually feel. It’s their version of a vaccine.
Since cancer, I’ve gone through major heart surgery and having survived that, I figure I’m good to go for a while. None of us are forever, but I’m alive. Presumably I’ll continue to stay that way.
Welcome to surviving. It’s imperfect, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.