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If you can fill the unforgiving minute ... with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run ... Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
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Monthly Archives: January 2010
The third anniversary of the day my life changed is approaching. Just as the sky darkening like a bruise above my backdoor portends the approach of a summer thunderstorm blowing off of Lake Erie, red hearts and frilly white paper lace and boxes of chocolates tell of the approach of the day everything changed for me. I was diagnosed with cancer on the day that celebrates love, 2/14/07. Lucky me, right?
Since my diagnosis, I’ve been conflicted on how I am supposed to approach the day. See when you are diagnosed with cancer, they are very good about giving you pamphlets that describe your disease and the treatment and the side effects so you’re very well-informed (maybe even TOO well informed). But they don’t give you anything about how you are supposed to deal with life after cancer. You finish chemo and they just set you free. On a wooden raft. In the middle of the ocean.
I digress; back to my upcoming anniversary. I suppose I could spend the day feeling sad and angry. I felt that way in 2008, my first anniversary. There are plenty of reasons to be sad — after all cancer has taken far too many friends. And there are also plenty of reasons to be angry — cancer left my life financially in ruins and my legal career? Let’s not go there. I channeled that anger and bitterness that first year into a running stunt; I ran 214 miles in a week early in March. Get it? February 14? 214?
I guess I could also just ignore the day; let it pass like any other. But that seems hard to do. It is pretty difficult to forget you had cancer, especially when you take your shirt off and there’s your trusty old mediport looking back at you in the mirror. I still have to have it flushed every eight weeks and my stomach gets uneasy when I walk through the doors of the cancer center. My stomach makes known through its mild revolt that it hasn’t forgotten the eight months of poisoning that took place here. Plainly although it has been three years the wounds are still pretty fresh.
In a small way I envy those people who can forget or can see cancer as just an interruption in their life. Maybe if I had just had a relatively minor surgery to remove the cancer I could see cancer that way, but I went through eight pretty grueling months of chemotherapy. When you count the whole process of arriving at a formal diagnosis, that was basically a year out of my life. Gone. And, really it isn’t so much losing 2007 as it is losing my sense of invincibility – that grand illusion that we humans walk around with. We’re a species that is self-aware; we all know that someday we are going to die, that eventually there will not be any more tomorrows. But we don’t live our lives that way. We can’t. Live like there is no tomorrow is a nice saying and sentiment but impossible to put into practice. Nothing would ever get done if everyone lived like there was no tomorrow.
In my case I never really worried that there wouldn’t be a “tomorrow" in the sense that I never believed my death was truly imminent. What I worry about instead is there won’t be a six months from now or a two years from now. This is the part of recovering from cancer I have struggled with most – trying to rebuild my belief that there will be a future that extends some ways down the road.
Running has helped with that. I like to flip through the pages of my running log and see how many miles I’ve run since being diagnosed with cancer. It gives me perspective, gives me hope that the road isn’t going to come to an end anytime soon. I have run thousands of miles since I was diagnosed with cancer. Happily, I didn’t just wear the rubber from the soles of countless shoes; I also wore away most of my anger and sadness.
Which is why I think the third alternative for what to do on February 14 this year is the best one. Henceforth, for me, 2/14 will become the ANNUAL “Whoo Hoo Jenny is Still Alive" day. (You can do the “Whoo Hoo" in your best Homer Simpson voice, by the way.)
I didn’t come to this decision easily. I have survivor guilt. It bothers me that I am alive and doing well and running when many people are still suffering with the disease or have ultimately lost the battle. I know I am not alive because I had a better attitude or am a better person or a better fighter. I will be the first to tell you that people who are much stronger and better and tougher than me have succumbed to this disease. I’m alive simply because I was lucky in that when my body very stupidly chose to go on a zombie cell creating rampage it decided to attempt suicide in a way medicine can usually fix. That’s it.
But I think there is a need to celebrate. Not just annual Jenny is alive day, but annual John is alive day and Jane is alive day. These days are sprinkled throughout the calendar and will pass unrecognized most everywhere except among family and close friends; almost all cancer survivors are anonymous except to a handful of people. But that’s ok. Even if just a few people see the celebrations, that is enough. I’m open about having had cancer in part because I’ve become acutely aware that people need to see cancer survivors, not just cancer victims. They need to see that yes, people can and do triumph over the disease. They need to know it is not a hopeless fight. And as far as those who have since passed on, well, I can’t think of a better way to honor them than them to continue the fight against cancer. Most of us, me included, don’t have the money or the smarts to cure cancer. But we can fight back by celebrating, enjoying, relishing, being thankful for being alive.
Barring an injury or illness, I figure I will celebrate my annual “alive day" with a run. After all, I’ve come to the conclusion that if cancer has an opposite, an enemy, to me at least, that opposite and enemy is running. Running – that ultimate activity of life, where you feel the most alive and most hopeful and free. Since, I don’t have the money or the smarts to cure cancer I will fight it the only way I know how – by being alive. And by looking forward to next year and fourth annual Whoo Hoo I’m Alive day.