This past October, I celebrated 6 years in remission. A lot of my social media followers and friends have recently asked me why I refer to it as “remission” instead of “cancer-free.” Honestly, I think it comes down to preference – I’ve seen others refer to it as both – but after the questions, I sat down and really examined my reasons.
I walked out of my doctor’s office on February 10th, 2012. My last radiation treatment was in the books, and I was done. Before I left, I asked my radiation oncologist, “How do we know it’s gone. Is there a test?” He said there was no definitive test to give me right now, but that there was no reason to believe that I wasn’t cancer-free. That sounded good enough to me, so I declared myself cancer-free and went home to post on Facebook that I’d beaten cancer.
Prior to my diagnosis, I fully expected anyone who’d had cancer to recur. Kind of harsh, I know. Like I said, that was before my own experience. Quite honestly, carrying around that belief was a hard way of fighting through the early stages of my breast cancer. Those thoughts lasted all of 5 hours before I had to reprogram myself. The negativity was defeating, and I wasn’t trying to let cancer beat up on me so hard straight out of the gate. For self-preservation, I had to ease up on that and believe that I was going to be ok – right now and forever after. On day one, I created “Victorious Val,” my cancer superhero persona, and that’s how I got through it.
I squeezed out those negative thoughts and concentrated on “beating” cancer – living up to my superhero name and envisioning my triumphant fight against the evil cancer I named Doug. The slogans, the media and everybody out there said I was a fighter, that cancer picked the wrong girl, that I was fighting and winning, and after a while, I got on board with that stuff. At the time, it gave me great strength, got me into that pissed-off-at-cancer mode and generally kept me from drowning in despair. So, you know, it served its purpose even though that has since expired.
When I “graduated” from treatment, I celebrated my victory for a while, and then I found myself often in that “when cancer comes back” thinking because I soon realized I hadn’t really graduated at all. My life was plagued with cancer collateral damage, so I had to redirect myself constantly. And, really who could blame me as I found myself attending funeral after funeral in the Austin cancer community. And it didn’t help that one of my first survivor friends went metastatic before my very eyes.
“I beat cancer.”
So, yes, back in 2012, I fully believed that I’d beaten cancer. For one, I couldn’t allow myself to believe that I hadn’t – that was entirely too scary. And two, I’d been programmed to declare myself a winner. Slowly, as the months and years wore on, more of my survivor friends were re-diagnosed and died at the hands of this very unfair disease. Eventually the belief that I’d beaten cancer eroded and I was left with a nagging sense of “What’s so special about me? Why do I get to be deemed cancer-free?” It was a crash course in survivor’s guilt. But something even more profound hit me like a ton of bricks. If I’ve “beaten” cancer, it implies that the women around me who have recurred, and then passed away at the hands of this disease, have “lost” to cancer. I’m sure you’ve witnessed the courage and bravery shown during metastatic breast cancer, and these beautiful women are definitely NOT losers.
Six years ago that seemed accurate to me also. But I guess that statement can be looked at two ways. Either I’ve got some audacity claiming that I’m cancer-free OR I’m just displaying positivity and confidence that it’s gone. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating your “right now” certainly, but I can definitely see both sides, so I decided to turn in “cancer-free” and adopt “remission.”
Recovering from cancer is such a complicated psychological process. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve been diagnosed, I think you probably intrinsically know what I mean. Just when I think I’m fully recovered or out from under the cancer cloud, I realize I’ve just moved to another stage of recovery. Like how many stages are there, anyway? So, realistically, even if I was still using the term “cancer-free,” am I really free from cancer? It may not be present in my body, but I’m still not out from under it. I still have check-ups and scans, I still have aches and pains that might be cause for concern, and I still have to push down that nagging thought of recurrence. And, yes, I still continue to see friends recur. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
“I’m in remission.”
I haven’t “beaten” cancer. I’m not “cancer-free.” Today, I’m in remission. It’s not a word signifying a chink in my cancer armour, a door that I’m leaving cracked in my thoughts so that cancer can return. It signifies that I’m stable. It’s a word that evokes gratefulness. There is no known and celebrated cure for cancer in the world we live in, so for me, the word remission provides assurance that today I’m good. And that keeps me living in the here and now.