You know that feeling when you are sound asleep and dreaming and suddenly awakened mid-dream, and you’re not really sure what the dream was all about but convinced that it was something good and wanting desperately to return to it but not able to fall back to sleep and resume the dream?
That was me last night after the puppy pounced on my head attempting to snuggle. And try as I did to recollect the dream, to get back into that same deep sleep and that same wistful vision, I was left awake with a feeling that I was missing out on something, never to regain it again. That sensation of missing some vague yet desirable recollection applies to my pre-cancer life too. I know that I am so lucky, so healthy, and leading a rich, full life, but there is something I can’t quite reach about the pre-cancer life that, like last night’s dream, was just ever so slightly better.
Part of it is the awareness that the potential for a return engagement always looms. Seven years later, that potential seems smaller and smaller, but the freedom to take life for granted, to assume good health and youthful energy is gone. And at this time of year, I can’t help but be reminded of the first time I heard the words, “You’ve got cancer.”
Some people would say it is my Cancerversary, but I have a hard time pinning down a date for that. Is it the first time I suspected that I can cancer? That would be in late September when my gynecologist called to tell me I had flunked my pap. Or, is it when she confirmed the cancer 10 days later after reading my biopsy results? Why would I want to celebrate either of those days?
So maybe it’s the anniversary of the day my tumor—and entire reproductive system—was removed in mid-October? Or the day the following March my doctor declared I was NED (no evidence of disease), with no need for further treatment?
I’m not sure what day I would assign to something so formidable as a Cancerversary. But I do know that at this time of the year, my anxiety creeps up ever so slightly in anticipation of an annual test that will indicate whether I remain cancer free. This year, there is an added anxiety. My doctor is AWOL and I haven’t been able to schedule the test. After years of practicing in my neighborhood, he took a position in another state—under an hour away, but with its own licensing and practice requirements, and the gap in availability has gone on longer than anticipated. I hate the idea of starting up with a new doctor, and really feel for his patients with more to be anxious about than me, but sure would like the reassurance of test results that show good news!
Coping With Cancer
Many of the patients I mentor bounce back after treatment and, like me, find each passing year a little easier, provoking a little less anxiety. But others are not so fortunate. As one patient told me, you never know what side of the odds you are going to be on. And when cancer comes back, it can be even harder to cope with, physically and emotionally.
Gloria*, who just passed the two-year monitoring mark for her endometrial cancer diagnosis, is relieved to know that she has made it over that hump—the likelihood of recurrence for her disease diminishes a lot after this point. But it has been a challenging couple of years, during which she also endured a heart valve replacement, a mysterious neurological disorder that destabilized her balance, and her now ex-husband’s betrayal. She would love to go back into her pre-cancer dream state, but knows that wouldn’t reverse the other nightmares she has endured.
Sue has accepted that she will be on maintenance therapy for the rest of her life due to multiple recurrences of her ovarian cancer, but that doesn’t stop her from walking the dog, seeing her own patients, flying across the country to visit family and being as physically active as ever. And it doesn’t mean she doesn’t long for the days before her diagnosis when her health wasn’t anything to worry about. But her cancer, and her ongoing need for treatment to keep it under control, are just immutable facts, that like aging, she has no choice but to accept. And so she has.
It took Damian decades to deal with the aftermath of his teenaged osteosarcoma. But eventually he did. And while he would love to have his leg back, and the freedom of movement that comes without needing a prosthetic to get out of bed in the morning, he knows that so much of who he is today is because of what he went through both during treatment for his cancer and in finally coming to terms with its impact on his life. In many ways, this is the dream state for him.
It’s hard to know what to expect after a cancer diagnosis. But we adjust. We find a way to adapt to the new reality and make the best of it. What other choice do we have? One day at a time, one deep breath at a time. I may never settle back into last night’s dream, but I can see the ways that coping with cancer has brought a richness to my life even as it took away the innocent assumption of health that I long for in my pre-pounce dream state. And while I may not be ready to declare a particular day my Cancerversary, I will keep on “Dancing with NED” as long as he will have me.
*Name changed to protect patient privacy.