“My Voice” by Susan Rafte

Susan Rafte - 'Survivor'

It is hard to believe that it has been 15 years since my status changed to Cancer Survivor.

That moment in time is as vivid to me as other remarkable, tragic moments in history that I have lived through.  The clarity of my memories of ‘where I was’, and ‘what I was doing’ when the news came through is as if it were yesterday.  Ironically, when the fateful ring on my phone came after 24 hours of waiting, at the very moment I answered and heard for the first time the words: “Susan, your report shows that you have a malignant tumor in your right breast”, I was alone in my house.  All day I had been surrounded by friends and neighbors helping me to divert my attention while I waited for the phone call with the report about a diagnostic test performed the previous day.  However, the late afternoon call coincided with neighbors’ kids arriving home from school and the normal busyness of afternoon activities and dinner planning was ramping up for everyone.  Unknowingly, the small crowd that had kept me company throughout the day had wandered off for a few minutes, including my 8 ½ -month old daughter, Marika who was with a watchful neighbor, and I was left alone with the phone and my faithful dog, Kasey — alone, to hear the words that changed our lives and me forever.

The emotional scene that ensued was quite dramatic – I became hysterical.  I ran to find my daughter at the nearby neighbor’s house and collapsed on her floor with Marika in my arms in a puddle of tears, enveloped in fear and rage.  I wanted nothing more than to hold and rock my baby and be awakened from a terrible nightmare.  But that didn’t happen.  At that point, I was catapulted from my serene and happy life as a new mother into the foreign and chaotic world of cancer.

In the weeks that followed, as a family, we quickly gathered ourselves and with the help of many others, we set a new course and began what is today a 15-year journey.  Many dreams were shattered that day –but with the shattered pieces and a vastly changed outlook, we began to rebuild a different life.  My choices were no longer based on future dreams, but rather I was drawn back to the present – to the here and now.  I stripped myself down to the core of my being and focused on the everyday, the daily things and the small miracles.  I removed myself from the beau colic ‘big picture’ and instead zoned in on this crisis and this piece of my life’s quilt.   In the early days of my diagnosis, every moment was precious.

This restructured and simplified life is my definition of an acute cancer survivor.

Now from a different vantage point, like standing at the top of high hill and looking down at the trail that twists and turns, weaves in and out of dark woods and wide open spaces, meandering through all sorts of terrain, I am able to, with a somewhat omnipotent view, cherish that I have been blessed by a miraculous journey that allows me to look back over the past 15 years of my survivorship.

The most respected and valuable gift that I have received as a cancer survivor is the rare perspective to evaluate what is important and to discard life’s interferences that just don’t matter and pull me off center.  Although I find myself years away from the acute part of my diagnosis, I still revert back to my experience as a cancer survivor as my litmus test to assess what is vital.  The world is stressful and full of pressures and often I find my life slightly and even completely off track, but I eventually use my survivorship compass to reset my direction and goals.  I take myself to that high point on the hill and using the 20/20 hindsight that I have garnered and earned, I remind myself of what is essential and capture again the perspective of a survivor that has defined and delivered me to where I am today.
I wish I could say that I still respect every moment as precious, but I think the joy and sadness of becoming a long-term survivor is that I have been able to move beyond the disease and the acute points in my journey, beyond the time that every choice and every second is life or death and every ache or pain is the cancer knocking on my door again.

Gratefully, I have moved back to that museum bench and am able to again look at the big picture.  I am in a different gallery now and I am certainly not looking at the beau colic, dreamy one of my younger, pre-cancer days, but rather a fabulous tapestry that is truthful and real.  One that is intricately decorated and adorned with people, places and things that were both a part of my life before cancer as well as after.  A tapestry that because of my being a cancer survivor for 15 years  has the benefit of all those years and experiences and is bursting with a wonderful array of people, places and things that have become part of my life and thus part of the scene.

My full and busy tapestry is a representation of my life, a life that, fortunately, is laced and entwined with a veil that represents my survivorship – that which makes up a huge piece of who I am and what defines me.  There are many beautiful and colorful scenes, but just so I stay on track, keep perspective and jog my memory there are parts of the tapestry that are dark and ragged.   Thankfully and miraculously this tapestry is still a blessed work in progress!

On September 23, 1994 at the age of 30, I became a survivor of stage III breast cancer.

On January 8, 1996 at the age of 32, I became a survivor of stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

On February 18, 1997 at the age of 33, I became a survivor of an autologous stem cell transplant.

On September 23, 2009 at the age of 45, I became a 15 year cancer survivor.

The ability to move beyond the disease, but not forget the journey and make a positive change, whether personally and/or for others is my definition of a fulfilled and long-term cancer survivor.