I periodically receive e-mails from people who have stumbled across my blog and are reaching out for support or answers as they embark on their own Cancer Adventure. The first question they always ask: “How are you?” So, here’s how I am.
Five years ago, I went in to get some antibiotics for the hacking cough I couldn’t get rid of. A chest x-ray sent me to the CT scan place, who sent me back to my general practitioner, who sent me to a pulmonologist, who sent me to a cardio-thoracic surgeon, who sent me to an oncologist, who confirmed that I had diffuse large b-cell lymphoma. I had cancer. Five years ago. Five.
Clinically, “5-year survival” is not that significant for my specific flavor of cancer. My doctor was pleased when I made it to 2 years of remission, after which the odds of my very aggressive cancer returning dropped dramatically. That happy day was June 15th, 2011. But socially, most of us non-doctors understand “5-year survival” as having beaten back the disease, having outrun the odds, drawing the long straw. Its a good thing.
Five years is a really long time to live after facing your own mortality. I’m going to be 40 in just over a year. 40! I didn’t think I’d make it to 35. And my kids are 6 and almost-8, and I’ve been there, raising them, loving them, enjoying them. Five grateful years.
My life is dramatically different than I think it would have been, without cancer. I used to be a lawyer. A good lawyer, yes, toiling at a prestigious law firm, litigating patents for Fortune 500 companies. But I was not happy. I was far more interested in being a lawyer, which to me was shorthand for smart and capable, than in doing what lawyers do. I took a break when my kids were born, and I was working on changing practice areas, trying to find that elusive passion, when I was first diagnosed. Even after my first round of treatment, I was looking for a new job…looking for a government lawyer job, of all things*…when I relapsed. The universe had to hit me over the head, hard, twice, to turn me away from that whole “what will people think when they meet me at a cocktail party?” mentality. Cancer, and an exceptional therapist, helped me build a life centered on what I want to do all day, not on what I want people to think. I don’t really go to that many cocktail parties, anyway.
So I spend time with my handsome, fun-loving husband and my funny, quirky children, as much as we can. We’ve travelled to Amsterdam, Capri, Cape Town. To Tennessee and New York City and Rehoboth Beach and Orlando. To Pebble Beach, to Seattle, to Maine, to Chicago. We’ve gone on lots of kid-centered trips and lots of grown-up trips.
I’ve found an outlet for my passion–cooking–that has provided enough income that I’ve been able to stay home with the kids. I am a competitive cook, and I’m really good at it. Yes, my friends, you are reading the words of the winner of the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Cook-off, the National Cornbread Championship, the Crisco Mediterranean Inspirations Recipe Contest, the Gallo Family Recipe Contest and the Mama Mary’s Pizza Creations Contest, and a finalist in the Gilroy Garlic Cook-off, the Good Housekeeping Cook Your Heart Out Cook-off, and the National Beef Cook-off. Who knew? Cooking contests are far more fun than patent litigation, I promise.
My other discovery is the day to day joy of family life. When I got sick, the hardest, most gut-wrenching aspect was the prospect of leaving my very young children. I remember making Zach’s tear-salted first birthday cake, thinking that it would be the only one I ever made for him. And later this week, I’ll be making cupcakes to bring to his 6th birthday, at the laser tag place, to watch him and his gang of rough and tumble six-year olds play together. I’ve watched my adorable toddler blossom into a seven-going-on-seventeen year old girl, who loves to read and cook and dance and spend time with her friends. My children make my heart pound with love and pride, and I am so thankful for these 1825 days with them. Long days, sometimes, but precious days.
Everything in my life is not sunshine and rainbows. I’ve slowly gained weight over the last 5 years, and I struggle with my weight enormously. There’s not a direct relationship between cancer and the 50 pounds that I would like to lose to get back to my old, soft, curvy, but energetic self, but indirectly, yeah. I was fairly sendentary for at least 6 months after my stem cell transplant, lacking the energy to do much other than drop the kids at preschool, throw in a load of laundry, and watch TV on the couch. As my energy returned, I tried to get back into shape, taking up yoga and training to walk a half-marathon. But somehow, I haven’t been able to get the balance right between the delicious, mostly-healthful food I cook and the calories I expend.
I also struggle with anxiety and depression, although I think I always did. I started seeing a counselor during a dark couple of months after my first bout of treatment, and have been seeing her, on and off, ever since. She’s helped me to identify how anxiety has driven so many of my choices in life, and given me tools to reduce anxiety in my post-cancer life, but still, sometimes I am paralyzed.
I mention this only because when I was sick, I couldn’t imagine bad things happening if I got well: either life would be a merry dance with unicorns, or I’d be dead. I forgot about all of the greyness, when we just get things done, walking past the flowers without so much as registering their light scent in the air. Life is about the dance between the cloudbursts and shitstorms. The joyful moments, the memories we make, the rich experiences that we encounter. And I’ve had 5 years packed full of them, and for that I am grateful.
*With apologies to my many government lawyer friends, there is not generally a great deal of passion in the day to day life of government lawyers.