I never would have expected that at 17, I would be dying. I would have never expected that at 17, all my plans would be shattered. I never would have expected that at 17, I would be diagnosed with cancer.
I know that what most people know about cancer is about the journey during treatment: the chemo, the radiation, the doctor’s appointments, the hair loss, the fear of dying. You physically see the suffering imprinted on their faces, on their bodies, and you can’t deny the facts displayed, the cancer now branded on them. But after the hair loss, the chemo, the radiation, what’s next? After their hair grows back, their scars begin to diminish, the doctor’s visits are farther and fewer between, what is left? What happens to the person when the cancer journey is done? Well, it doesn’t stop at remission.
My life is categorized into two different parts: pre-cancer and post-cancer. I can’t remember things in terms of “what year” or “when”; it’s only what happened before and after I was diagnosed. When you have cancer it, in fact, becomes your new normal. The doctor’s visits, the chemo, the poking and probing, seems so normal in comparison to the lives of others, and your life is shattered again when that ends. I cried my last day of chemo not because I was in remission, but because my new life was going to fade away, the one I had built for myself for 8 months. I had been institutionalized, like a criminal being released from prison. It’s like you have to re-learn how to live the life that didn’t involve cancer, relearn social interaction, relearn school and work habits; adjust back into normal society. Honestly, I didn’t want to. I wanted to still be that cancer kid. The depression of missing your old cancer life and the anxiety of trying to piece it back together still haunts me. It will never end.
The thought of a relapse never leaves your mind. Even if you aren’t actively thinking about it, it lays dormant in the back of your brain. It lives in your dreams, allowing itself to metastasize fully when you sleep. I can’t count the number of times I have woken up at 4am, in a panic, thinking I have cancer. In a few seconds, I realize it was a dream, a dark fantasy, but the thought still burns on my mind throughout the day.
Certain sounds, events, stories, things bring me back that that time. You forever associate these things with your dark past, and it permanently taints them. I love the Golden Girls, but the cancerous stigma never goes away, because I was diagnosed while I was watching it. Loud beeps, like oven timers, remind me of my chemo pump going off, which rang loud and late into the night. Shit, I even hear it in my dreams. I still can’t wear one of my favorite dress shirts because I was diagnosed in it, two years ago. It still hangs idly in my closet, probably never to be worn again. When I see these things, hear these things, I feel like my heart stops beating. I flash back. For a second, I have cancer again. I relive everything in that one second; every memory is condensed. And then its over, and I have to go on living life ordinarily as if I didn’t just die a little more on the inside.
The shame and guilt you feel is the most unimaginable, the most horrific. You cannot grasp why you are alive. I mean, modern day medicine is amazing and your doctors are amazing, but you don’t understand why your friend, who had the same doctors, the same treatment, died, but you lived. Of course, not every cancer is treatable, not every will to live is strong enough, and not every person tolerates chemo, but still; the survivor’s guilt still remains. I think to myself: why did I live? I am not a good person. I am not a pure life. I am cynical and jaded; I have lots of sex and do not so desirable things; I am not the most compassionate or caring or sympathetic. So why the fuck am I here? Why did this beautiful five year old, who did nothing wrong, the most innocent thing in this world, die? I don’t know. I will never know. If there is a God, I will ask him though.
I will never say that having cancer wasn’t the hardest thing I have ever faced in my life. However, the future, the uncertainty I face, is worse than dying. I was never prepared or warned for what would happen post treatment, and I will always struggle to make my life feel normal. But it’s worth it. In honor of my two-year cancer-versary, I want survivors to feel like life is worth it, and that their struggles are real, even years down the line.
This is for you.