one of the hardest things about being in remission is being in remission. and one of the hardest things about battling cancer is battling cancer. ironic, i know. and both of those existences are lonely. lonely as hell. and it’s not because i don’t have dozens of people in my corner. no, that’s far from the truth. it’s lonely. lonely because in an effort to be understood as a cancer survivor, i get boxed into certain things that meet others comfort levels. and what i mean by that is that some people around me are finished with the narrative surrounding my cancer. to some, my journey has finished. and therefore, anything else that connects back is insignificant. that because someone ran a pathology report seven months ago, i can’t possibly experience anything larger than a paper cut. but the truth of it all, is that existing after cancer is something. it’s something alright. it’s different and it’s scarier. not like a palpable anxiety. more just like a looming kind. and sometimes it’s so thick, i can barely get out of bed. life after cancer is not one single ounce of life before. had to throw the whole old life out. and while that pisses me off about once a week, it’s really more about just the last twenty four hours. of which a large portion was spent sobbing into my pillow while my husband rubbed my back and whispered ‘it’s okay’. and what he meant is that in that moment, it was okay to be an absolute mess. because earlier this week, i found a lump. cute, right? just seven months into remission and a lump appears. and i know what you’re thinking. it can’t possibly be cancer. have you met me? i love to play optimist from nine to five. but let’s be real. nothing ever stays small in my life. my track record bleeds problematic. so when i felt the lump the first time, i shrugged it off. said it was a fluke. that i was tired and probably felt something that didn’t exist. but it was still there the next day. and the day after that. and i wasn’t crazy. and i absolutely hate when people push me down to meet their comfort level. i will say it once and i will scream it for those in the back. if it’s bothering me, it’s bothering me. that doesn’t mean i have invited you to bring me to where you are at level unbothered. nor is it a crash on your party at level unbothered. my comfort level is just as important as yours. there. it’s been said. so when i began to unravel on day three of a marble size lump in my breast just seven months after beating stage two breast cancer, it was no surprise that the unraveling brought a mass of emotions with it. i sobbed into my husband’s chest. staining his old navy tshirt with my snot and crocodile sized tears. i kept saying over and over again- ‘i did everything right’. i could practically hear his heart breaking. it was almost as audible as my own shattering. facing death before age thirty five does a lot to a person. and so does seeing some of the things you see when facing death. the sights and sounds of a covid icu unit. the lonely clinic chairs during chemo. the mrsa infection on my thirty second birthday. the final text messages with a girl who had been my best friend since we were eleven. survivor guilt. endless wound care. a year of hell. and a year of heartbreaks. and the other side of this mountain that is my life; well it’s a staggering descent. one that sometimes takes a dark turn but then is followed by several moments down a sunlit path. but i find myself back at that sobering moment. sobbing and simply saying over and over again that i did everything right. i did it all. the shitty, horrible stuff. i took the meds, the risks, had the surgeries, never missed an appointment. i didn’t have fun. i didn’t even go to work. i stopped everything and battled an infectious disease and then cancer. all in one year. i followed the rules. i checked all the boxes. and yet here we are. again. and honestly, this week has felt like a hundred days. and it’s only monday. and in these last few days of battling what is called a recurrence scare, here is what i have come to terms with as we are back here. again. being here. again. at what literally looks exactly like it did a year ago is painful. it’s painful to be suddenly thrust back into a triggering moment. to be in the same moments of time again. to have spent the last seven months untangling your grief and your trauma and holding space for all of it. stitching your marriage and your routines and relationships back into place. to then be tumbled again. again. to that day. where a lump just like this one unraveled my whole life. as i received stage zero diagnosis sitting crisscross applesauce in the middle of my bed. as i received a stage two diagnosis in a mask with my mom on speaker phone on a tuesday. to a final staging in an office overlooking the baltimore skyline. again. and here i am. still healing. still facing my trauma daily. waking up in a body that cancer hand delivered. after an amputation of all that was mine for thirty years. and i find myself face to face with every one else’s comfort levels. which is also pretty challenging. and complex. and painful. because there’s this thing that’s almost expected of me. to resume the level of strength and resiliency that existed during the tough days of the virus and chemo. to face this challenge with the tough guy attitude. with nauseating positivity and optimism. to not speak of cancer.
but honestly, the first year of remission is crucial. it’s the hardest. it’s a milestone that seems attainable but yet is also slightly out of reach. no one wants to battle it again. not me. not you. but i can’t force myself out of this place of uncomfortableness. that isn’t serving me. because my comfort level typically matches my trauma level. and being uncomfortable with my trauma is pretty normal. it’d be kinda weird if it wasn’t. and it is perfectly okay and normal for my brain to travel to those trauma markers. when i find a lump. when bloodwork is off. when my fatigue is debilitating. when a friend dies from cancer. we are marked by our experiences. and everything in our life shapes us. and for me, nearing death twice before my mid thirties is something that has shaped me. and it also took a lot from me. and it has forced me to descend an enormous mountain. where recurrence scares sometimes lurk. and it’s okay that my brain flicks on the neon cancer sign. because i did everything right. i haven’t wronged anyone. i eat my vegetables and let pedestrians cross. i graduated college and i always kiss my dog goodnight. i always tip more than twenty percent and i never forget birthdays. and so being here, again. it feels scary and familiar and unfair. to live life teetering on the edge. balancing life with cancer and after cancer. picking up where i left off but also starting all over again. being here again isn’t anyone else’s again. and maybe that’s the whole point of this whole rambling situation. that it’s my again. facing something that broke me the first time and was an indescribable experience. one that was lonely and isolating and shredded everything down to the studs. and it raises ugly feelings and it made me cry for three days. and while i want to put my brave face on, my heart and brain are still healing from the first round.
being here again feels big. it feels a little like walking a mile in shoes i wore once before. maybe this time we won’t have to walk so far. maybe this again will be the last one for a while. or maybe it won’t. either way, we are feeling how we feel. and that’s all good.