Three Years

Unless you have or have had cancer, you won’t appreciate the significance of the title of this post.

Cancer anniversaries, regrettably nicknamed “cancerversaries” (see “anywho,” “guestimate”), are measured not from diagnosis, but from end of treatment.  I don’t know about all protocols, but mine consisted of six weeks of radiation (5 days per week, about 20 minutes per session) interspersed with five rounds of chemotherapy.

The first three chemo sessions were low-dose support to the radiation, the last two were full-blown, as in the kind where the nurse stands in the doorway and watches you for a couple of minutes after the IV starts to make sure you don’t spontaneously combust. (Maybe that’s why she/he stands in the doorway and not right next to you in the bed or chair.)

On Friday September 25, 2015 I had my last chemo session. My localized, non-met tumor shrunk to nothing, I survived a clinical trial, the chemo and its concomitant hell, 10 days in the hospital for pneumonia, unrelenting fatigue and the infamous “chemobrain.” Three years later my status continues to be NED (no evidence of disease).

What’s important about this anniversary is that I’m more than halfway to the 5-year survival milestone.  Each year I stay NED there’s a greater chance the cancer won’t come back. My oncologist says now there’s roughly a 20% chance of that.  Of course, that could change in the time it takes to divide a cell, and I never forget that. No one with cancer ever forgets that. But for now I appreciate how incredibly lucky I am to have had these three years.  And, that’s all it is – pure luck. And, maybe the good sense and geographic fortune to seek treatment at M.D. Anderson.

Three years.

Three years in I never expected I would have. Three years to watch my grandchildren grow taller and stronger and be amazed at things they didn’t know the day before. Three years of imagination and Watch me! swimming and holding hands on the way to the park. Three years of birthdays and books and bedtime nuzzles. Three years of the people I love. Three years of ice cream and summers and grilled cheese sandwiches. Three years of school days and fall carnivals and Halloween costumes. Three years of Christmas anticipation and magic. Three years of moons and rainstorms and spaghetti with Rao’s marinara. Three years of dog smiles and soft cat paws and animals rescued and loved. Three years of cupcakes and birds and winter wind in the trees, the first smell of fall, summer night breezes and stars. Three years of life in this lousy, trump-infected world. 

When you have a lethal form of cancer, your mortality eclipses your view of the future.  And that’s something that no one who doesn’t have cancer can understand. It’s the first realm of separation.

In his book When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes,

“The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present.”

When you’re older, the ladder of goals is pretty much worn down to a slightly elevated ramp, but even then your consciousness dwells where future is inherent. There’s always tomorrow. A cancer diagnosis dispels that notion.  Your world shrinks and flattens out while the larger one goes on without you. You recede, but you learn to find your place, your serenity, your joy in small present moments and you hold onto those for dear life. (Some of mine are here.)

So, three damn years. Yeah.  Here’s to those ahead of me, behind me and, especially, to those we remember.