“My Voice” by Laura Morefield

Laura Morefield and Her Father

Right after my 48th birthday, I noticed a “stitch” in my side.  It seemed to coincide with playing golf or working out, so I didn’t really take notice of it as a health issue. I lived an active life, doing some caretaking during various surgeries, blogging on political matters, working sporadically on other types of writing, and keeping house and home together for my husband of 25 years. I was, to quote a doctor, ridiculously healthy.

On November 19th, 2008, I played a round of golf with my Dad, my brother and a family friend. It’s an indication of how competitive I am that I’m still proud of the fact that I won. Driving home, I was so hot that I thought my air conditioner in the car was broken. When I got home, I noticed a fever. My husband had me take a few Tylenol and I went to bed.

I woke in the middle of the night with a piercing pain in my side. We drove to emergency with Dan, my husband, thinking it was a pulled muscle and me thinking maybe appendicitis. I was diagnosed two days later with Stage IV colon cancer, with metastatic tumors spread throughout my liver and potentially a few little ones in my lungs as well.

Cancer? Me? I was the one who ate right, exercised, didn’t drink water that came from plastic bottles, etc., etc. I was in shock and scared.

Almost right away, I began wrestling with the language we use to describe people like me. I rejected the term “cancer victim” because it seemed to put cancer in charge and presume a tragic ending.

I was less uncomfortable with the term “cancer patient,” which works for clarity. I am, after all, two years, 30 chemo treatments, five surgeries from diagnosis and still actively in treatment to keep my tumors from growing.  The clarity, however, is offset by what the term means to the medical establishment; an unequal relationship where doctors are active and in charge and I accept.

That’s been far from my history so far. I interview my doctors. I keep meticulous records. I have copies of scans, consult books and other cancer survivors about the latest in treatments (both traditional and complementary) and I often correct or question the conclusions of the members of my medical support team.

The day I was diagnosed, an oncology nurse came into my room and said, “I know this feels like the end of the world, but it isn’t.” She put an arm around my shoulder and we chatted for about half an hour. I’ll never forget her. And she is the one who encouraged me to adopt the term cancer survivor. “If you’ve survived one hour with cancer, you’re a survivor,” she said.

What the term lacks in clarity (many people presume it means I’m “cured” rather than in treatment), it makes up for in empowerment. I have survived with Stage IV colon cancer for nearly two years. People presume it will be the death of me, but I like to remind myself and them that I have outlived my original prognosis and it’s my stated goal to “beat the odds until the odds change.”

A survivor looks at life differently than a victim or patient. I view myself as fighting (and winning) a daily battle against a chronic condition. I treasure moments, days and seasons with fresh eyes. I know that I value life because I’ve invested a lot in continuing to live.

Sure, there are days that are less pleasant than others. Seven days out of 14, I feel like spending most of my time on the couch. I’ve been fairly lucky in terms of side-effects, so I don’t experience a lot of nausea. (On the other hand, I had a fistula and believe me, those were not fun days…nor was the surgery.)

But, on balance, the last two years have been a blessing. I have taken steps to enrich my life. To jettison what doesn’t matter. I’ve invested in myself and my health. I’ve allowed others to care for me—in some ways, for the first time in my life. I’ve grown. I’ve laughed a lot more than I’ve cried. And I have loved and been loved more deeply than I thought possible.

I still have tumors in my liver. I may have some tiny tumors in my lung. Chemo seems to be keeping things at bay. So I control what I can (diet, exercise, doctor’s appointments and taking care of my health) and let go of what I can’t. And I continue to debate what to call myself. Survivor may not be the full answer.

The truth is I live with cancer. I am not dying of cancer. At least, not today. Probably not tomorrow, either. But yesterday, I did play golf. Today I went for a 4 mile walk. Tomorrow, I will sit in a chair for nearly 3 hours while I marinate in chemo drugs. It’s all part of the cancer dance. It’s a bitch to learn, but hey…at least, I’m dancing.