Last month, an acquaintance from high school emailed me to report that she’d just been diagnosed with cancer. I was momentarily floored, but unfortunately, the reality of young adult cancer is so much a part of my life that the initial shock quickly faded. Sometimes, I’m more amazed at the number of people I know who haven’t had cancer yet. Sometimes, it feels like this dread disease is coming for us all.
My high school acquaintance shared her story in brief, broad strokes, and I was gripped with the familiar sense of wanting to DO something for her, to change the past for her, or to smash something in shared outrage and sadness. Her story, and those of others like her, like me, are endless. We may regain our health, and perhaps find greater happiness than we knew before our illness, but there is no denying the tragedy that we’ve all endured; all is not necessarily well that ends well. There is simply no regaining time and innocence lost.
What may emerge from that darkness, though, is the particular light that comes from people with a shared history of adversity lifting each other up. When my acquaintance related that she’d leaned heavily on things I have written here, the tension at the heart of so much of what it means to be a survivor cinched tight around me – this sadness that she needs whatever it is I can offer, tempered with gratitude that somehow my own experience with cancer has helped relieve someone else’s burden, no matter how slightly. Please, Universe, the survivor often pleads: let there be some meaning in all of this madness. Let my experience guide someone else who is forced along this tortured path. In the end, the miracles of medicine aside, all we have is each other.
My journey out from the darkest recesses of what cancer wrought has been filled, mercifully, with remarkable human beings with whom I share an essential reality: the pain and fear that inevitably accompany a cancer diagnosis. Though time and distance and death itself have tested and altered these relationships, they formed a powerful foundation for the person I’ve become since my illness. When a new member joins our ranks, I feel all of these connections anew. My hope for this person from my past, then, is that she can know the unique comfort of other survivors.
Still, when voices from my “cancer past” emerge, (as happened last week, in an event seemingly unrelated to the email from the high school friend), I feel a certain destabilization of my “new normal” – which, six years out from diagnosis, doesn’t feel so new anymore. Most of the time, cancer feels old, a million years ago. There is simply no room for it any more, not when I am trying to be a mother and a good partner and also find time to make space for my own self-care. But when an email appears from an old virtual cancer friend , it feels once again very much at the center of my psychic universe. For in truth, it is always at the center. When it feels otherwise, it’s simply because of daily distractions, the business of living. Whenever I’m presented with an opportunity to look inward, and consider the aspects of my history that are etched most deeply, I realize there is nothing larger and more significant than the fact of my illness.
Managing as a survivor – at least for me – means fighting in some sense to deny the centrality of cancer in my life. For if you can’t ever really get away from it, if you can’t just “forget” for a moment that you were ever sick, or temporarily erase the memories of that fateful meeting with your oncologist, or the moment you were wheeled into the OR for your surgery – how are you supposed to fully inhabit a life among the living? When I recall the days of my diagnosis and treatment, I feel the acute vertigo of staring over the abyss – coming head to head with death, in some profoundly raw and unexpected way. It’s been six years, and I still feel it. Not constantly, but vividly, in particular when one of these voices from the past emerges, and calls it all up. That’s how I know it’s all still right there, just below the skin. If only those memories could be extracted from my consciousness, removed like the cancer itself. The disease is gone, but the impact is forever. So maybe, then, it’s never really gone at all.