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A Breast Cancer Diagnosis Made Me Realize I Wasn’t Really Living

So everything is done online nowadays. My medical charts are online and I chat with my doctor until the wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep. I was recently out of isolation and late night checking my email when I see a notification on my chart.

Subject line: “officially off low iodine diet and radiation isolation.”

Well, duh. I ate salt like four days ago. I clicked to open the email expecting to find nothing, but she had included my results from the scans I had just done. The scans that took 2 hours of laying still, holding my breath and feeling trapped inside a tube. Obviously all this was happening while I was expecting the worst. 

After you finish all your treatment and scans, you either get good news or you get more bad news. I’ve always been someone who anticipates the worst but that’s just how things go when you’re constantly thrown a curve ball. When you expect the worst, you don’t know what to do with the best. You awkwardly sit and stare at your parents with this weird grin on your face. They ask if everything is okay because you haven’t had that smile on your face since December. You haven’t had hope in your eyes for months and you haven’t had normalcy in just as long.

Everyone says, “Oh my gosh, you are a cancer survivor!” You beat it (for now) and have no more appointments, labs or scans for a couple of months. You are finally free to go and live your life the way it was planned, the way that you had planned it for years. You can do your capstone, order your cap and gown, apply for internships that require graduation and get the ball rolling with your final semester. But even though you get to do all this, you’ll do it as a “cancer survivor.” In fact, that will be your pre-dominant label for the rest of your entire, right now seemingly miserable, life.

I don’t view myself as a survivor at all. I personally will not associate myself with that word. I will not use it to describe myself. I will not proudly wear that label whatsoever.

A survivor, by definition, is a person who survived. A person who remained alive after an event in which others have died.

To me, a survivor is past tense. It is saying that you survived something and it is finished. There is nothing else you need to overcome or no other doctors you need to see. This part of your life is over and you can write the final paragraph in that chapter.

But like why would you say you’re a survivor (past tense) when this thing is going to follow you for the rest of your life? You have yearly scans, blood work labs and specialists to see. You’re not done. You’re just getting started. Not to mention the fact that remission is potentially temporary and a something that will haunt you day after day. I even have started looking for jobs in Minneapolis instead of more grandeur cities like San Francisco or New York just so I can be close to my doctors in case of tragedy. Why would I say that my cancer is past-tense and done if I have to do things like that? It isn’t realistic, it’s just not.

So instead, look at another word. Surviving.

That word is defined as “to continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.”

Heck yeah you’re going to continue to live. You’re going to kick the crap out of living and you’re going to quite literally “live it up.”

I celebrated my 22nd birthday two days ago and I was having a conversation with my dad about what birthdays mean in society and to each individual. I used to be so selfish about March 9th. It was MY day. It was a day that everything revolved around me and I didn’t have to text my crush, he was obligated to text me (lol). But this year something seemed different as I prepared to celebrate another year. I didn’t prepare a birthday list or make any dinner reservations. In fact, I told my parents I really didn’t feel like celebrating because I didn’t think there was anything to truly celebrate.

As I thought about that, I realized I was so incredibly wrong. I know birthdays are a celebration of life, but now they are a celebration of surviving. You have made it to the next year, you’ve made it to the next chapter. Whether you survived your semester of journalism classes or living with a crazy roommate or landed the job of your dreams; you are continuing to survive. You’re surviving on this brutal planet in spite of all the hardships thrown your way. I certainly have a newfound love for birthdays and instead of making them about me…I’m making them about life and everything everyone did to help me continue to survive all the obstacles in the past year.

I’m over here just trying to live and take one day at a time. I’m not a survivor; I’m merely surviving.

How do you feel about the word, “survivor”? Share in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of author.

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