Gold, silver and bronze medals

Smiling Silver Medalist

It’s my Cancerversary. Four years. No recurrence.

When I think about it, the first thing that comes to mind is, wow, where did the time go? I can’t believe how long ago that all seems. The anxiety and fear at diagnosis. The pain of surgery. The queasy fatigue of chemo. Scanxiety and isolation after being cut loose when treatment was over. The emotions are still very real, but now come with a layer of dust, a patina of healing. 

Eventually, my mind flips to how lucky I am that it was caught early, that I was fit and strong at the time, that it was treated appropriately, and that I am well now. But not before making a brief stop at, “Why me? What would life be like now if I had never had cancer?” The unfairness of such an undeserved assault that leaves me wondering if I will ever regain what I lost.

Like many of us affected by cancer, I find myself doing a mental game that psychologists refer to as “reframing.” Whatever I once felt (or momentarily still feel) I generally reflect on my cancer experience in a positive context, rather than a negative one. Given how much worse it all could have been, this was okay. Rather than, how much better life could be if I never had cancer. 

Reframing for Context

Apparently, Olympic athletes do this sort of reframing too. As I learned listening to a podcast from The Happiness Lab, most silver medalists are unhappy. When they stand up on the podium next to the gold champion, all they can think is that they came so close to being number one. If only, if only. The silver feels like a failure, rather than a victory. But most bronze medalists are just happy to be on the podium. They compare their achievement with the possibility of not medaling rather than with attaining the gold, so they are happy with their lot. It’s a major accomplishment.

Even if we are not athletes, for most of us, a cancer diagnosis is an Olympic ordeal.  And like someone who comes in second, there is always a reference point that can make us feel worse. If only I had seen the doctor sooner. If only I had never smoked. If only I had exercised more. But the key to being a smiling silver medalist seems to be comparing your fate to a more negative possibility. What if I hadn’t had the mammogram when I did? Imagine if I didn’t have the great care team I do? What if I hadn’t gotten treatment right away? What if it hadn’t been treatable?

Only Human

It’s human nature to be envious and I am definitely human. From an early age, I remember being jealous of those who had a father at home, new clothes they hadn’t made themselves, the easy camaraderie that comes with social acceptance. (Just try introducing yourself in a new town at age 7, when you have a lisp and your name is full of sibilant sounds, and see what that does for your social acceptance!) 

It was only much later that I learned in real life, no one has a perfect family, everyone envies something, and we all need a little more love and acceptance. And, by comparing my fate to a less fortunate one, I could see that what I lacked in an absent father was made up for in an abundance of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. That making my own wardrobe allowed me to signal my independence. And that the handful of close friends who stuck by me was more valuable in the end than a spot in the popular clique anyway. I wasn’t a total loser. 

Of course, my first instinct when diagnosed with cancer was to feel defeated — by the disease, by the inequity of a diagnosis when I had done everything in my power to protect against it, by the physical toll it would take to recover. I felt like a loser all over again. And, it would be a while before I was able to reframe the situation, to make the right sort of comparisons about my situation to adjust my thinking about cancer’s assault. But even that wasn’t enough to get me on the podium. 

Putting Cancer in its Place

I also benefited from what my family refers to as my stubbornness — my determination and internal motivation. There was no way I was going to give in to this diagnosis. Like most challenges that come my way, I was going to tackle it head on. Cancer was a personal affront and so I engaged. I asked questions, I complained, I advocated for the best possible outcome, and I shared responsibility with my care team for making it happen. That determination is what got me off the couch when treatment dictated that I climb back into bed. And it’s that determination that keeps me advocating for others who may feel less persistent.

Another piece of putting cancer in its place was to find a way to smile. It’s not that I enjoyed having cancer or going through treatment. But there was something about the way cancer changed the rhythm of my life that did bring joy. Walks in the park while I was recovering took a different pace than the high-pressured runs I was used to, allowing me to discover new paths, new sights, something new to smile at. Through treatment and the general detour of cancer, I met new friends who continue to bring me joy. And I was able to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that came with completing each step in the process. I am sure there are easier ways to have experienced these joys, but allowing myself to find these pleasures amid the horrors of cancer and its treatment contributed to my sense of victory.

Sure, it would have been much better to have won the gold medal, to have gone through life without ever receiving a cancer diagnosis. But, by putting the experience into context, finding the motivation to do my best with what I faced, and allowing myself to experience joy along the way, I can declare myself a smiling silver medalist. At least until the next Olympics.

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