This Sunday is National Cancer Survivors Day. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and you know, sometimes I still can’t believe that this day applies to me. Is it just me, or do you sometimes feel like your whole cancer experience is surreal? Some days it seems just like yesterday, and some days it seems like it never happened at all.
Today I woke up feeling grateful and thinking, “I’m a cancer veteran.” But at almost five years out, the whole thing is still really weird for me, and the feelings about it are still conflicting. Despite my best efforts, at times I feel like cancer is all of me, and then at other times, I feel like it’s absolutely none of me. Those are the extremes that cancer throws at us, so it’s no wonder that we often question what we’re feeling from day to day and wonder if it’s “okay” or even “normal.”
I’ve learned a lot of things over the years. In honor of National Cancer Survivors Day, here are the top three lessons I’ve come away with:
The guilt is normal:
I’m very lucky that some days I wake up and don’t even notice that I survived cancer. I feel fine. Better than fine, actually. But those days are often ridden with guilt. Why do I feel okay when others are left with debilitating side-effects or recurrence? And then other days, my Lymphedema flares up, and I’m reminded that I have my battle scars too. It’s a very complicated, psychological journey.
Often, when I feel fine, I find myself in a heated internal debate. In a world where everyone shares the details of their lives on social media, should I hold back or censor my personal celebrations because some of my sisters, and social media friends, are still plagued with active cancer? Is it ok to share my good news concerning my life or even my cancer experience itself? Or is it just insensitive?
Right behind cancer itself, guilt is the runner-up for “Jerk of the Year.” So how do I handle it?
Sometimes I share my news because I want to experience joy like I did pre-cancer, and at other times I can’t get past the guilt, so I don’t. I try hard not to overanalyze or censor myself in any way, but guilt is a very normal part of dealing with the aftermath of my cancer and everyone else’s around me. It will come and go, likely for a very long time.
I must pursue my goals and be deliberate in my actions:
I look at every day beyond October 31, 2011, as a “bonus day.” I’m coming up on almost 5 years of bonus days. Trust, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t look at the big picture and feel grateful. With this awakening comes a tremendous sense of relief. There’s no longer a fear of failure. My life is a never ending series of opportunities, and I must be deliberate in my actions. Whatever I hope to achieve, I must take the necessary steps and not waste any time in doing so. Those travel plans cannot wait. Those life events I hoped to experience will not make themselves happen. I’ve never been a woman of inaction, don’t get me wrong, but post-diagnosis, I feel a sense of urgency that I did not feel before. I have re-prioritized my life, and every day when I wake up, I chisel away at my dreams. For the past two years, for example, I’ve been training hard to compete in bodybuilding competitions. It does not matter to me that I’m built like a runner or swimmer or that I have long, lean limbs that do not build muscle easily. It also doesn’t matter that I have Lymphedema or Sciatica. Those are obstacles standing in the way of making the most of my bonus days. I find ways to work around them, and I keep pressing forward. And, you know what? I feel good about where I’m heading. What are your dreams? Your ambitions? Your goals?
I must reach out to others:
My cancer diagnosis was the scariest moment of my life. From the second I ended treatment, volunteering went from something I never did to something I felt led to do. At first I did charity events–races, auctions, and speaking engagements. But I eventually realized that there were other outlets where my time and energy might be used as well. I began my online Facebook community, Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders, with just a few of my friends following. It’s grown to over 4,000 followers, and it’s a place where women can connect during their cancer experiences. I spend my time managing the page, creating talking points, posting celebrations and milestones and trying to create an environment of kindness and encouragement. My followers, however, are the heart of the page, and they are the ones who minister to each other during the worst times of their lives. I have been blessed tenfold with their support, and in all honestly, they do more for me than I do for them.
The title, “National Cancer Survivors Day” possesses a certain celebratory connotation. And while it’s a valid reason to celebrate, here we are in 2016, still losing our brothers and sisters to cancer. Celebrate yourself every day. And in the breast cancer community, continue to push for more metastatic research. The best National Cancer Survivors Day will be the one that isn’t celebrated because there’s no such thing as cancer anymore.
Here’s a link to the official webpage of National Cancer Survivors Day: