The conventional wisdom regarding cancer, if there is such a thing as conventional wisdom with a subject so broad and diverse, is that the five year mark is a big one. Some say five years cancer-free is as good as cured. So what am I supposed to think now that I’m about to reach year six?
Technically, the doctors will say, I wasn’t really confirmed as cancer-free until December 2014 when I had surgery to remove all lymph nodes that might have been harboring aberrant cells but which turned out to be completely clear. And technically, I’ll say, when I finished chemotherapy in late September 2014 I started my recovery, and I get to have some say in this because whose cancer is it anyway?
Anyway, for one thing I can’t say it’s completely behind me. Yes, I had a form of cancer that was easily treatable, and literally within a day of my diagnosis at least one doctor was telling me I had a good chance of being cured. If I hadn’t been so careless in the months leading up to that diagnosis, if I’d been paying attention to the obvious signs, “being cured” could have meant one surgery instead of three and I could have skipped chemotherapy. I made things worse by being lackadaisical about my health when I should have had a daisical, but that’s another story. Sure, there were some fun parts of chemotherapy, like the guy who came around every day with a cart full of candy bars and chocolate milk, and then there was the guy with a guitar who came to my room and sang “Edelweiss” and I asked him if he could play something a little more upbeat and he played “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”, and the best part of that is that he only came by once. Still I’d prefer to have skipped all of it.
The idea of being cured is also misleading. Even after five years cancer can come back. Or it can pop up somewhere else. When I wasn’t getting chemotherapy I sometimes went to the local Gilda’s Club, a place for people who’ve had cancer, who have cancer, or who know someone with cancer—in short, for everyone. I met people there who’d been cancer free for decades. Like them I’ll be a cancer survivor for the rest of my life. It helps keep things in perspective. There was a time when a little thing, like the grocery store being out of that coffee I like, could ruin my day, but now I can say, “But at least I don’t have cancer!” and I feel better, and as an added bonus when I yell about cancer in the middle of the grocery store people clear the aisle and no one comes around singing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs to me.
Sometimes I do wish I could go back and do it all again, although differently. I’d be more aware, I’d be more organized, I’d ask, “Hey, do you know any Sondheim?” I’ve even thought about how I would handle it if I have cancer again. That may sound like a morbid thought but the universe is a morbid place. Everything that lives eventually dies. That’s why we’re lucky to be alive, and if you don’t feel lucky to be alive try yelling, “I’m lucky to be alive!” Even if it doesn’t make you feel better it’ll clear the coffee aisle.
What cancer did for me was leave me with a deeper understanding of how the future matters. The past matters too, and so does the present—they’re all part of the same thing—because everything builds on what came before it. Every decision is a plus one.