In 2010, I discovered I had cancer in both breasts. Two unrelated tumors making me twice lucky. They removed the tumors and the associated breasts, gave me very attractive replacements which are perkier than the old ones in an artificial implant sort of way. One has deflated somewhat, but I’m not having surgery to fix it. It will just have to remain rather flat. I have a little ID card for each breast which is more than I can say for a driver’s license which I do not have because at age 75, I have to prove I’m me. I wonder who I was all those other years?
12 years later, there has been no cancer recurrence. I’m an official survivor. I no longer need to see the oncologist yearly
Surviving nearly fatal illness tends to make one paranoid. If the illness is or was cancer, the insidiousness is its absence of symptoms — until suddenly, there are too many symptoms. The knowledge that something evil is growing somewhere in your body and probably won’t know about it until it’s too late to fix is scary. Sometimes, when you are paranoid, it’s because someone IS following you.
I had no idea I had cancer — much less in both breasts — until it was diagnosed twice in 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.
My mother died of metastasized breast cancer so on one level, it wasn’t a surprise. My brother died of pancreatic cancer 14 years ago, having never gotten as old as I am now. This is not a reassuring family medical history.
I don’t think most of us are afraid of dying per se. We are afraid of the journey we will take to get there. We’re afraid of pain, suffering, the humiliation of utter dependence and gradual loss of control over our bodies. No one is eager to feel the brush of those dark wings and you can bet feeling them twice is two times too many. Anything more would be cruel and unreasonable, but we didn’t get a constitution with our bodies and there’s no supreme court to explain why we ought not have whatever we have in the way of illness.
We are called survivors which means we aren’t dead. Yet. If you think about it, “survivor” doesn’t mean much. Anyone who is still living is, by definition, a survivor. If you count the number of times we’ve recovered from things that — before antibiotics — would have killed us, we are all miracles of modern medicine.
We are all survivors.
Anyone could be felled by a heart attack or run over by an out-of-control truck. The end of the road is identical for all. It’s only a matter of when, what, and where it will strike. We huddle together in the same leaky lifeboat. 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 bumpy. Each of us has a particular “thing” we find aggravating that has nothing to do with actual illness. For me, it was dealing with well-wishers who ask “How are you?” but don’t want an answer. They are being polite or that’s what the apparently think. I give them what they want. I smile brightly and say “Just fine, thank you.”
Reality check: I have no idea how I am. All I know is that for now, I’m good. I am in remission. The real answer for those of us who have had cancer, heart attacks, and other lethal ailments is “So far, so good.” That is not what people want to hear. We are supposed to be positive. Upbeat. We are not supposed to suffer from emotional trauma.
Why the hell not?
Everyone knows that death is inevitable, but rarely want the ugly details. Besides, if I’m not fine, maybe they aren’t fine either. Cancer is mentally contagious, but not physically. Thus acquaintances have an annoying need for you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed no matter how you feel.
Since cancer, I’ve gone through major heart surgery and I didn’t get COVID. I figure I’m good to go for a while. None of us are forever, but I’m going to hang around for a bit.
Until I get called to… what? I have no idea. Heaven would be swell, but I have substantial doubts about it. Still, it would be a nice place to land, wouldn’t it?
Welcome to survival. It’s not perfect, but it beats the hell out of the alternative.