By Anna Byrne
a stone set up to mark the distance to a particular place.
an important event in the development of someone’s life.
a place to pause, breathe deeply, give thanks, look backwards — and forward.
Recently, I marked a new milestone in my journey with cancer. It was five years ago that I left treatment, cancer-free. I wasn’t sure I’d get here, so it’s a worthy place to take pause.
My time living with cancer was fraught with milestones. I marked the stages of my illness and treatments. I mourned the milestones that were seriously delayed or never achieved. I imagined with hope the future ones I might still live to enjoy.
Here’s some of my most potent ones: The first time I heard, at 32 years old, “It’s cancer.” That first, stinging needle pushed under the tender skin of my hand before my port was put in. The sheer elation of hearing, “You’ve had a remarkable recovery.” The utter grief of relapse. My first stem cell transplant. Tempered elation, nullified shortly afterward by another relapse. Stepping out onto a bustling sidewalk in downtown Toronto after being discharged from a month in isolation for my second transplant. Then, hearing that I had no more options for not having cancer. Feeling, for the first time in those seven years — and maybe for the first time in my life –true hopelessness. Getting married though I thought I was dying. Not dying.
When I was administered my last dose of chemotherapy on that day five years ago, I did not mark it as the closing event of living with illness and the opening ceremony of my post-cancer life. I wasn’t confident it was both of those things. Five years later, there are times when I’m still not confident of that. But five years has given me a greater degree of physical and psychological distance from my illness, and for that, I’m grateful.
The last five years have been a re-missioning of my life after giving three quarters of a decade to surviving. In many ways, life started again from scratch, but with a dose of wisdom. I left cancer care knowing more of who I was and what I hoped for in my life.
“I left cancer care knowing more of who I was and what I hoped for in my life.”
The richness of my day-to-day has been found in what is most often called the simple things. Who named them as such, I wonder, for they are among the most meaningful of life’s offerings. Daily walks, snuggles and smooches, the quiet moments of meditation, hand-written notes, family dinners. My own bed. This breath. The next breath. If you had asked me when I was ill what I wanted to be healthy for, these simple things would have been my answer. Here I am.
These years have also been marked by absences. No tiny pinprick holes in my skin from needles. Nothing but water and coffee and good food and chocolate running through my veins. My hair is the longest it’s been in years and I’m happy to say my doctor doesn’t know me very well. These absences have made space for my mind and body to wander and wonder again. I am strong and I can daydream of the future. What luxuries.
There’s been some tough times, too. Over the last five years, I’ve had shingles, pneumonia, and a serious case of meningitis. The last treatment I had caused shortening of my muscles and so I sometimes have painful cramps and ongoing weakness in my hands. Trauma from years in the medical system has rooted itself in me at the cellular level. It can easily be triggered by stress or a real or imagined symptom. It causes me anxiety and — surprise! — an over-attachment to milestones.
In the last five years, I’ve also carried with me the grief of the previous seven. The long duration of my illness took its toll on hope while feeding grief. In these five years, grief has begun to wane, giving hope new room to grow. Still, there are times when I am caught by a wave of sadness so strong that I know it is older than what is happening in front of me. I know I’m supposed to carpe the crap out of every diem, but sometimes, I just watch Netflix. But every year, I’ve gotten to keep vacuuming, sleeping, volunteering, smooching, and walking on this great spinning sphere. That feels unexpected and glorious.
The experiences I had and the lessons I learned are still with me, and I know they always will be. After all, it was through living with cancer that I became attuned to the miracle of the small things, the moment-to-moment experience of this one precious life. I owe that to cancer, and I owe that to myself to remember.
Wherever I am on the spectrum of health, life is always unexpected, messy, and glorious. I don’t know what the future holds, but come what may, I look forward to living out the small, everyday moments and the milestones. For this, I give thanks.