One day, right before my 40th birthday six years ago, I received a call that changed everything. By “everything,” I mean my identity. I was no longer just an ordinary Mom; I was a Person With Cancer. Up until that phone call I had assumed that I was the very picture of glowing health.
When I told a neighbor about the diagnosis, the first thing she did was give me a plastic bracelet embossed with the name of an organization which sought to raise awareness for brain cancer. “You’ll need this,” she said, as if my life depended on it.
For her, she probably did think her life depended on it; she had brain cancer. I said thank you and as soon as I got home I tossed it in the trash. I knew immediately that I would not be one of those people who cling to plastic bracelets as if they were life rafts or badges of courage; I would wear no pink ribbons and I would not walk, race or run for The Cure. I am not a jogger. I do not wear plastic jewelry. I did not want to be a Person With Cancer.
The only thing that had changed was that I knew about my cancer. I had been carrying it around for years, blissfully unaware. But I had been a Person With Cancer for a long time — since before my children were even born. I was still in robust good health. Having cancer did not make me suddenly feel sick — but it made everyone else think I was sick.
I did not want to be a Survivor. Sure, I didn’t want the cancer to kill me, but reaching for that label made me feel like I wasn’t currently surviving. Yet we are all surviving, every day; it’s called living. Being a newly-minted Person With Cancer, however, thrust me into a world in which guilt was a strongly motivating factor — guilt about things I had never thought to feel guilty about.
I was supposed to feel guilty about not wearing a plastic bracelet or joining a fun run. About not collecting yogurt lids or wearing pink. Women are supposed to feel guilty about not doing monthly breast exams or getting annual mammograms. I felt guilty about getting fake breasts. I knew I was supposed to feel a pang of survivor’s guilt every time I ran my fingers through my hair. I felt guilty about feeling sexy. I felt guilty about not feeling guilty: it was a mess.
Soon enough, once treatment began, I was decidedly not in good health and I certainly looked like a Person With Cancer. I felt guilty about having wrecked my health in order to get healthy. Cancer is a countdown that begins on the day of your diagnosis, regardless of the status of your tumor — as if the news itself trips a timer on the bomb that has become your life.
The Race for the Cure is run on Mother’s Day — an obvious choice. As a Survivor, I would be entitled to a discount and free pink hat identifying me as one of the Lucky Ones if I signed up. I’m not a pink hat-wearing kind of girl. I run this race every day when I chase my children or lug laundry up and down the stairs.
I honestly don’t know if we can “cure” cancer, or even if that’s a logical goal. Cancer has been around a long time; it’s a process that happens to cells in your body for one reason or another. For most of history, life killed you before cancer could. There are far more people living with cancers which have yet to be detected — and with cancers which will not kill them even if they go undetected — than there are People With Cancer.
The “with” is the important word here. We can fight cancer; we can beat cancer for the time being — but we never really know if or when it has returned, usually until it’s too late. So we must live with it.
We have to drag it through life’s finish line with us whether we like it, or know about it, or not.