People often celebrate big events in their lives—birthdays, marriages—on the anniversary of those events. They mark the day of each year and treat it as special, but these were big events when they happened. Marriage days are, for a lot of people, filled with a flurry of activity and there’s not a lot of time for the couple getting married to think of even enjoy it, which is annoying because it’s supposed to be about them. And I don’t remember much about the day I was born, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of stuff going on with me being dragged from my womb without a view and getting slapped on the ass by the doctor–I told him, “Hey, you could at least take me out to dinner and a movie first,” but that’s another story. It isn’t really until the day after the big event that everything settles down and this new life can truly be appreciated.
This is what I thought as I approached the first anniversary of my last day of chemotherapy, the day when I could officially call myself a one-year survivor of cancer. I had my last treatment on September 22nd, 2014. It wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. It wasn’t bad either, but it was complicated. Three months of my life had revolved around chemotherapy. That’s only a tiny fraction of the time I’d already lived but I’d quickly gotten used to the routine. I’d gotten used to the nurses, to the daily needle stick, the coolness spreading through my chest as the saline first rushed in. The boredom, tiredness, weight gain, the cold rooms, the allergy to sunlight, the swelling in my legs, and, hey, being stuck with a big needle I could do without, but it was all working toward killing off the cancer and that made it all tolerable. It even made it something I looked forward to. I thought, mistakenly, that chemo would be the last step. When I was first diagnosed my goal was to get to remission, but then at least one doctor told me I had “a good chance of being cured”. I’d never heard of cancer being cured—I didn’t even know it was possible, so that excited me. I latched onto that and made the mistake of thinking there’d be an end. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but I made the mistake of forgetting that when I emerged I’d still be on the same track and that there’d be more tunnels up ahead.
I’ve forgotten most of what my last day of chemo was like. I’ve forgotten who the nurse was, what I did to keep myself occupied, what my wife and I did when I was finished. What I do remember, vividly, is leaving. There was a young man in the waiting room, skinny, with dark circles under his eyes, wearing a heavy shirt that was too big for him and a knitted cap over his bald head. He looked up at me as I was going out. I wanted to tell him things would get better but I didn’t want to offer that kind of false hope. Things were getting better for me but maybe for him they wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to shove that in his face.
It’s a form of survivor’s guilt. There wasn’t a single traumatic event that killed others and left me alive, but I’ve lost people I loved—people I sometimes think, in dark moments, deserved to live more than I do—to cancer. And so many others have died. What makes me special? Why was I so lucky? At least one doctor told me “If you’re gonna get cancer this is the one to have.” Actually testicular cancer is just one of some of the highly treatable types of cancer, but I still don’t know what the odds are or why they fell in my favor. Even when I talk to some other survivors I feel guilty. So many had radiation, multiple major surgeries, and chemo that went on longer than mine. My side effects were minimal. I had a few bouts of nausea—I didn’t even throw up—that were so regular my wife spotted the pattern right away and could make sure I took a magic red anti-nausea pill before they started. I was exhausted but could still manage to get out of bed every day. My immune system was knocked down so badly a cold could have easily turned into pneumonia but that never happened. The worst never happened. I listen to what others went through and I wish they’d had my experience instead. What I went through wasn’t easy, but it doesn’t seem fair that others had it so much worse.
And there’s a selfish side to it too. I think about what I lost. I think about the carefree innocence I had. Before cancer I really sort of felt invincible. I’d blithely wander into labs full of anthrax and bubonic plague and flesh eating bacteria and fix myself a drink and blow my nose with a napkin I found on the floor. That’s an exaggeration, but before cancer there wasn’t any illness that scared me because I could honestly say “I never get sick.” And there’s also the fear that, going back to the train metaphor and the light at the end of the tunnel, I may be in the light right now but I don’t know what tunnels are up ahead. The chances of my cancer coming back are extremely slim but I don’t know if this was just a battle or if I’ve won the war. I don’t say I’m “cured” anymore. I can’t be certain I’ve beaten the crab.
This is what I spent September 22nd, 2015 thinking about. It was not a happy day. Maybe future September 22nds will be easier to get through. Maybe farther down the track there are even days when I’ll forget I even had cancer. Even if the anniversaries are still hard it doesn’t matter. September 23rd I celebrated. September 23rd I put all those dark thoughts out of my mind. September 23rd I sang, I danced, I walked in the sun. I celebrated the day after.