Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here, and with it comes an onslaught of feelings. First of all, diagnosed on October 31, 2011, obviously cancer hijacked Halloween. On the first year anniversary, I skipped dressing up in favor of celebrating being alive for another year. The second and third year, I did the same. But when the 4th anniversary of my diagnosis rolled around, I didn’t really feel like celebrating my “cancerversary.” Instead, I spent a week hunting up the perfect Halloween costume, and on the 31st, I spent an hour in my bathroom painting a spider web on my face. I slipped into the cute witch costume I found at Party City, and with my pirate fiance, I headed off to the Cheesecake Factory. Ending treatment was empowering, but finally escaping the emotional chokehold cancer had on me, even if it was just for one night, was the real victory. That year it was Jack and Val, party of 2, because we finally left cancer at home.
To catch you up, after my treatment ended, things didn’t really go the way I’d hoped. My life didn’t go back to “normal” like I’d planned. Medical bills continued to stack up. I developed lymphedema. I worried about every ache and pain. I wondered if I had cancer growing in my body. And, dang, it was a HUGE letdown. Then, eventually, the people I’d met with cancer began to recur. I felt GUILTY for being healthy. I wanted to talk to someone about my feelings, but I felt afraid and like I was the only one, so I didn’t. Later, I learned that survivor’s guilt is real, very confusing, and yes, common. All of this is magnified in October – the anniversary of my diagnosis and, yes, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
On the one hand, I’m grateful for the 5 years worth of bonus days I’ve racked up. It seems like a pretty legit reason to celebrate my anniversary, you know? But on the other, I’m mad. I’m mad we’re still losing our moms, sisters, wives, aunts, grandmothers and friends to this disease. Do I celebrate my good fortune? Yes, I do. But honestly, it kinda makes me feel like a schmuck. One in 8 of us will be diagnosed with breast cancer in our lifetime. Of those, nearly 30% recur. And every year we lose approximately 40,000 women (and men) to breast cancer after it’s progressed to metastatic stage IV. In the last 5 years, I can’t tell you how many of my friends have recurred or passed away from this disease. I say that because I really can’t. The number is too large. I’ve lost count.
So what exactly do all my ramblings have to do with October and awareness? Let me take you back to the first week I was diagnosed. There were breast cancer awareness products everywhere. I wasn’t happy I had breast cancer, but I found myself buying a crap ton of pink ribbon stuff like I was somehow excited to be part of this breast cancer club. I assure you, I was not. I look back on that and can only speculate why I felt a need to grab all things pink. It felt like I was the reason this sea of pink existed. October helped people like me. And purchasing pink ribbon items somehow made me feel better–like I was supporting myself. Fast forward 5 years, and I know more about October and pink ribbon causes now. I assure you, my view is very different. I’ve already had breast cancer. I am the 1 in 8. I don’t need awareness anymore. Many of my friends have recurred. We need action because we know all too well that cancer comes back. It’s time to move past awareness and focus on research and a cure.
As a cancer newby back in 2011, I identified with the term survivor. It made me feel accomplished, like a badass, until time went on and I realized that I hadn’t really accomplished anything. Like everyone else, I weathered the storm, and I got through it. But I didn’t singlehandedly whip cancer’s butt or stop my disease in its tracks. I merely survived the experience. It’s taken me a while to wade through all the emotional baggage that comes with that. Why am I healthy when others are not? Trust me when I say that I know I’ll be sorting through it for some time. I no longer buy up the pink supplies like I did in 2011. I give to organizations that fund research, and I participate in events that help local patients. This month I’ve picked one event I plan to support. It’s super low-key and directly impacting the women in my community. And this October 31st, I’m going on a girls’ trip with 3 friends who’ve also undergone breast cancer. This is my 5 year mark, a milestone I hoped I’d reach. I’m not sure if we’re dressing up or not, but I’m looking forward to spending it with people who understand my conflicting feelings because they’ve experienced it themselves.