At first surviving meant putting one foot in front of the other.
After surgery I was on painkillers, but sometimes reality would break through the fog. And that reality was: You have cancer. You’re stage III. You may die soon.
I knew how to be me – I’d been doing it all my life. I did not know how to be a “cancer person,” a woman who seemed as different from the old me as water and fire.
I did not know how to live with the loneliness of cancer. I had friends and family around, but this was a new kind of loneliness. My heart would break daily. Every time people got up to leave me after a visit, they were leaving me alone with my cancer.
And fear. I did not know how to live with constant fear.
Or jealousy. I was jealous of almost everyone, because they did not have cancer and I did. I’d have traded me in for an ugly homeless person if it meant no cancer. I was even jealous of other cancer patients, if they had better survival statistics.
My five-year survival was 30 percent, cut in half to 15 percent due to my “bad actor” cell type.
That first year I thought about suicide. Later I learned suicide remains a common fantasy for cancer patients, since it gives the illusion of control over an uncontrollable situation.
In my second year, surviving meant going online, learning more about my disease, attending conferences and meeting other ovarian cancer survivors. That helped with the loneliness. Some of these women were light-hearted. Some were young and beautiful. Some were in remission and getting on with their lives.
Some devoted their remaining years to patient advocacy. One of these activists, a blond, petite energetic little pistol from Canada, shared my “bad actor” cell type, and yet she was doing well. She would not tolerate my pessimism. One afternoon we were out walking, and she stood in front of me, blocking my path, and said, “Listen to me! You’re going to make it! You’re over the hump.”
Yeah, right, I thought. And so she was – right, that is. But I didn’t know it then.
The third year of surviving I hit a wall. I felt too weak to face the fear of recurrence day after day, month after month. I could not stand the hours of waiting for test results. I could not stand my morbid imagination.
Perhaps I was not a good candidate for survivorship, I thought. My friends and family were, naturally, appalled by my attitude, but they didn’t know what to do about it when fantasies of suicide returned.
Obviously I didn’t go through with it. Ironic, I know, but ultimately it was my pessimism that rescued me from my pessimism. I could picture people in white lab coats standing around my body, shaking their heads and saying, “And look! Not a speck of cancer.” It would be just my luck, doncha know.
My fourth year I decided to move. Our first house had its own baggage, and our second house was the “cancer house.” I wanted a place that would not remind me of the chemo and fear I endured those first three years. I wanted a place that was one story, and low maintenance, because 1) My cancer comes back, or 2) I’m one of the lucky few who survive long enough to get old.
I wanted a house where I could enjoy sunshine, birds and trees no matter how sick I was, no matter how frail. Selling, buying and remodeling was a monumental chore, and it required a leap of faith on my part. No house, no matter how user-friendly, would be worth all this trouble if the cancer came back tomorrow. I had to believe I would make it, at least for a while. So I believed.
My fifth year was supposed to be some kind of milestone, but by now I knew so much about cancer that I understood cancer never signed our 5-year non-aggression treaty. No, cancer does whatever it wants. Even so, my outlook was beginning to change. My checkups were farther and farther apart. And one day I recognized an emotion that had been missing from my life for a long, long time – joy.
My sixth year my doctor had to X-ray my foot, and there he saw the beginnings of arthritis. “I should be so lucky, that I live long enough to get geriatric diseases.” He quite agreed. He’s been doctor since 1988, and it was he who found my cancer within two days of presenting symptoms. It was he who insisted I see a gynecologic oncologist. He saved my life.
My seventh year I saw two more friends get diagnosed with cancer. Now I’m walking a mile in the shoes of my friends seven years ago. I’ve gained a new appreciation of the strength they showed in the face of utter helplessness and despair they must have felt. “She’s truly the nicest person I’ve ever known in my life,” I said to one husband. “I know,” he said, “I know.”
My eighth year I had the luxury of worrying more about the economy and our financial health than my physical health.
As of September 2009, I began my ninth year of surviving a type of cancer I had seen kill women who were earlier stage than me. At last, cancer has moved to the background. Cancer has become something that’s part of me, like my brown eyes and how I miss the harsh Texas sunlight of my childhood. But cancer no longer defines me.
I’m well aware it can still come back. But even if it does, I got way more summers than I thought I would. More spring tulips. More sunsets. Another visit to the Grand Canyon. Another visit to the Pacific Ocean.
And – surprise, surprise – I found her again. I found the woman I was before cancer. I’d missed her terribly, I realized, once I felt her presence.