They tell you that you’re never officially cured of cancer, but hitting the ten-year mark is the closest you can get. Ten years is the holy grail of survivorhood. It’s what you hope for, pray for, and dream about reaching. At ten years, they stop invading your body with annual scans and send you off into the world. At ten years, you’re considered free.
Today, I am a ten-year survivor. It was a decade ago that I finished my last chemotherapy treatment, and wheeled out of the inpatient oncology unit for the very last time. Breaking out of the stiff, sterile hospital and into the cool springtime air symbolized a monumental transition. As I let the air of that crisp March morning fill my lungs, I took my first breath as a survivor.
That’s not to say that life became easy the second I stepped out those doors. On the contrary, I felt even more vulnerable during the months after chemo than I did while I was in treatment. After 11 months of actively fighting, suddenly I was doing nothing, and I interpreted that passivity as just waiting for the cancer to come back. I remember counting each day as one step closer to that ever elusive ten year mark. But still, ten years felt like an eternity, and I remember wishing I could fast forward the entire decade in front of me. I didn’t care that I’d be missing out on ten years of experience — I just wanted to know that I would be okay.
An incident that will always stand out in my memory is one that occurred while on vacation with my family the summer after finishing chemo. I was so busy thinking about my uncertain future and worrying about a recurrence that I was having a hard time enjoying myself. My mom picked up on how I was feeling, and gave me a piece of advice I will never forget. She told me that life is full of fear, and we can easily let that fear debilitate us. But if we spend all our time worrying about the future of our lives, we’re not really living; and then, what’s the point? That conversation changed everything for me; I decided that day that I would spend the rest of my life truly living, packing as much joy, laughter, and love into whatever time I have here.
Many of the last ten years have been spent trying to reconcile my status as a cancer survivor with my forming identity. I’ve never wanted to be defined by this disease, because I know that I am much more than that. But at the same time, I cannot deny that cancer has changed me. It’s changed the way I see the world, and has dictated many of the decisions I’ve made. It’s opened the doors to people that have made me a better person and experiences that have further defined me. So much of what is beautiful in my life somehow links back to cancer, and while I don’t know what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gotten sick, I do know that it would not be half as fulfilling as the life I’m leading now. Cancer is not my identity, but it is an important part of who I am.
Today I look back at that scared 13-year old who wished she could bypass time. I wish I could tell her just how spectacular her life was going to become, and to slow down and savor every second of the ten years that lie ahead. The last decade has been nothing short of amazing, and I would not trade it for anything.
I never could have imagined that in something so devastating, there could lie so much beauty. Today, I embrace the beauty that cancer has brought to my life. Today, I give thanks for the people that stood by my side through every step of the journey, and for those I’ve met along the way. Today, I accept the responsibility to live in such a way that provides hope to those still fighting, and that honors those who are no longer with us. Today, I am proud to call myself a survivor.