For most of my scholastic life, my least favorite day at school was the first one after summer vacation.
“Let’s all go around the room and tell one fun fact about ourselves,” the teacher would say, and I would silently start to panic. I had no fun fact — nothing I had deemed unique enough to stand up and proclaim in a room of my peers. My hands would dampen. My brain would race. And by the time it was my turn, I was in a complete panic.
After being diagnosed in 2011 with breast cancer, I jokingly breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I would forever have an opener, a unique fact about myself that few in my peer group could relate to. Of course, by this time, I was long out of school, and these day-one icebreakers were relegated to my attempts to rejoin the workforce after about a year of blank space on my résumé.
“So where were you in 2011?” potential employers would ask.
I would explain the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemotherapy, the radiation and the fact that my previous employer had eliminated my position while I was recovering from treatment.
“You’re a survivor. That’s amazing,” they would proclaim, and I would cringe.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the sentiment, and in a sense, it is correct. The definition of a survivor is, “a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.” It’s the notion that a survivor has braved it all and that’s it. That’s the end. But that’s not my reality. I’m not a survivor; I’m surviving.
I survived what I see as the first phase of having breast cancer. It’s the surgery and the exhaustion, the chemicals that course through your body and the countless hours spent in various doctor’s offices.
The next phase, for me, is staying alive. It’s surviving. It’s making sure the cancer doesn’t come back, because as much as my oncologist tells me, “We threw the book at your cancer,” he has never once said to me, “This will never happen to you again,” because he can’t make that promise.
He can’t swear to me that I’ll never have to go through this again. I will always have six-month blood tests and follow-ups with multiple doctors. Every year, I will have a mammogram, and I will have to take a Xanax before I step foot into the cold and antiseptic room where my right breast gets flattened like a pancake.
Every year, tears will spring to my eyes if the doctor takes more than 10 minutes to read my results and call me into their office to go through them. My hands will dampen. My brain will race. Every twitch, every twinge, every time something feels out of place, I have the fleeting thought in the back of my head, “Oh, shit.”
It’s nothing I have control over. It’s nothing I will ever have control over, and that’s a notion I’ve come to accept and gets easier over time.
But the next time you meet someone who’s going through cancer or who’s just gotten a clean bill of health, maybe think twice before calling them a survivor. The survivor has already lived. The surviving are the ones that go on living.
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