Almost nine years ago, on September 23rd, 2014, to be precise–well, I can’t be really precise but I think it was about 12:13PM that it was finally over–I finished chemotherapy. This is the date I mark as the end of my fight with cancer. The doctors will say it wasn’t really over until the following December when I had a major surgery. There were no signs of cancer at that point but the doctors said, “To be safe we’re gonna nuke it from orbit.” And there were still no signs the following spring, but I had a small surgery anyway to be completely safe.
I was diagnosed in June 2014, finished chemo in September 2014, and a final surgery in March 2015. For nine months I lived with cancer. I woke up with cancer, ran errands with cancer, ate with cancer, and, at night, when I got into bed, there was my wife, a couple of dogs between us, and, right there with me, cancer, which is why I sometimes woke up soaked in sweat. I went to meetings of people who had, or who’d had, cancer. Some of them had been in remission for twenty years, but they still lived with cancer. This will be my life, I thought. I will always live with cancer.
For a long time that was my life, and I’d slipped into it easily. Almost overnight I’d gone from a guy who couldn’t pick my primary care physician out of a lineup to someone who walked into appointments with specialists and said, “So, how did your kids like the trip to the zoo this weekend?” I got used to having needles stuck in me, and I became an expert at navigating hospitals.
It changed gradually. My oncologist decided she only needed to see me every six months, then only once a year. Then she moved to Chicago.
It was like my hair growing back. For a while I was aware of it, mostly because it itched, but by the time I got around to needing my first post-chemo haircut I didn’t even think to mark the occasion.
I still live with cancer. It’s just not the life I imagined. I can’t even articulate what it is I did imagine, although it involved continuing to go to support groups–I’m sorry, I haven’t been back to one since 2014. I imagined I’d continue to be on a first-name basis with various medical specialists–but I only see my new oncologist once a year and, honestly, I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.
At one time I wondered if my hair would grow back. Then it did, and I quit wondering.
I’ll always live with cancer but not like I used to. It’s like an old friend who moved away, but one I never want to see again because it tried to kill me.
For most people big anniversaries end with a five or a zero but I prefer the odd numbers. When separated into equal parts there’s a remainder–something left over. And I get to decide what that is. Maybe it’s cancer–the brief but terrible experience of all of it, the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the uncertainty. It can also be me, still here, still odd.