A Cancer Survivor Never Really Says Goodbye to Cancer by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston
I’ve been in remission for about three years. I was just started my chemotherapy treatment when my 40th birthday came around, so rather than making it the special birthday I thought it would be pre-diagnosis, it was just a crummy day dealing with the side effects of chemo. So when #41 came around, my family threw me the 40th birthday party I wanted, only this party was a combination “Happy 40th” and “Jean Marie beat cancer!” party. I was thrilled to be finished with treatment! I was determined to celebrate life stronger than I did in the past, determined to not waste a single moment I was blessed to have now that I was cancer-free. I was going to pay forward all the kind acts that were shared with me during my treatment. Even though I still had fibromyalgia to contend with, I was a survivor and I was determined to live up to that title.
What I didn’t expect was the fear that would follow me like my shadow…the fear of a recurrence or a new cancer, a worry I’d love to shake but for some reason can’t, a fear that grows in intensity the farther from my first year of remission I get. I know part of this concern began when I lost my father to cancer. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and though he practically cried from the rooftops “If Jean Marie can beat this, so can I!” we lost him a month later. I was devastated. I felt like he wasn’t even given the chance to fight. He went into his surgery for his port determined to give his cancer a good knock-out punch, and two days later he left us. So a part of me understood where this worry that seemed a bit paranoid came from, but the rational side of my brain couldn’t understand why I couldn’t move on to a more positive place after such an amazing accomplishment followed by a few good years’ worth of good news from my oncologist.
Until this happened this past week…
“E” is a woman whose story is very similar to my own. She lives in my area, she’s close to me in age, and she has a daughter the same age as mine. We had met at a mother’s club function a few years prior when our daughters were only babies. In fact, though we never became very close, I had happy memories of her holding and playing with my baby during a different outing we both attended. She was happy, outgoing, friendly and a very welcoming soul! She was the type of mom I wanted to be friends with because you just couldn’t help but be drawn to her bright, cheerful disposition. Our “reunion” a few years later wasn’t as happy…while we had smiles for each other I’m sure we both wished we had reunited under different circumstances. “E” and I ran into each other at my oncologist’s office. It turned out we were both fighting breast cancer, and we were both there for the afternoon for our chemotherapy treatment. The times we ran into each other there we shared hugs and supportive smiles as well as news about our children. There were a few vents about how crappy cancer is as well. In the end we both beat cancer. We both proudly walked the survivor lap in that summer’s Relay for Life. We both were blessed to return to our happy lives as mothers and wives…but for one of us, as I recently learned, that victory was to be shorter-lived.
This week I learned through Facebook posts that “E’s” cancer returned this September. I was floored. My mind couldn’t shake thoughts of her or the words in her post for days following reading the news. I was hit with such a mix of emotions I had trouble even explaining to my husband what was going on with me. Part of me was devastated for a fellow survivor that she was starting that dreadful journey all over again. Anyone who has a heart doesn’t want to hear about somebody being diagnosed with cancer. But for those of us who have lived it, it’s something much greater…we know firsthand the hellish torture cancer can make a person’s life, and knowing that as personally as we do, we just have a way of hurting more deeply for cancer patients no matter how well we know each other. It’s like a sisterhood or brotherhood, a sort of club, we all belong to where we have each other’s backs whether we’ve met before or not. So this news did bring about some of these feelings. But it was also much more. You see, this week when I learned her news, I was reacquainted with my own mortality again…not as closely as I was introduced that day I was told I had cancer, but still I was reminded that though I’ve been in remission, I am never truly out of the woods. “E” shared with me the fact that two other friends relapsed before she went and had her new symptoms checked out. That’s three “survivors” starting the battle against cancer all over again. Three people who have lived what’s come to be my greatest fear for the last three years. A mother who thought she was blessed to enjoy living life watching her daughter grow up who now has to deal with the worries that a cancer patient can’t fight off, will I beat cancer to get those years back or will cancer win this time around? I know “E’s” positive thinking is pulling her through this crisis, but I also know what’s natural for cancer patients…no matter how positive a cancer patient tries to be, there still come days, hours or minutes when we wonder in fear if we will be the victor or if cancer will be the champion.
This past summer I did discuss with my oncologist where we stood with my own remission…what did I need to look for? How would we monitor me for new cancers? It’s a scary thing to be told that new cancers are found by feeling new, unusual pains and other symptoms that you live with every day from fibromyalgia. What’s even scarier is when you doctor tells you your best bet for finding a new cancer is to get your fibromyalgia under better control, only to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis two months later. This is where my mind has been since September, and now tonight as I write this, it’s feeling like an even foggier mess than usual possibly because even after getting some of this off my chest I still can’t shake the hold it has on me. Maybe the news is still too new. Maybe I’m too stressed by trying to get holiday preparations done despite the flares I’ve been suffering. I want to write a happy ending for both “E” and me but there is no crystal ball to look into and see what the future holds for either of us. All I can do is try to find ways to wrap my mind around this, make myself available to “E” to support her in any way I can, and find ways to manage my chronic pain conditions despite western medicine’s failures when it comes to that goal. It’s easy to get tied up in the everyday challenges of parenthood and forget how important it is to take care of oneself, especially when those hurdles require much higher jumps thanks to fibromyalgia and RA. When daily life is a struggle, you catch yourself living in survival mode to get through the day. And survivor mode doesn’t usually include efforts above and beyond the call of parenting duty to get in better shape or work toward better health. “E’s” experience has been yet another wake-up call to tell me I need to do better. I need to eat better, to lose weight, to find natural holistic treatments for my chronic pain conditions…somehow I need to find a way to take better care of myself no matter how hard it is to find the time and ability to do so! If my father had beaten cancer, it would be his message to me. Maybe even without him here, it somehow still is.