July 31, 1996 started like many other days – overcast sky, warm humid air, and another trip to the oncologist. But this day was the watershed in my treatment, the culmination of all the hard, sick days and worry. Yet, it felt like a rubber stamp day. My treatments luckily and thankfully had been working, reducing my tumors to scar tissue.
I entered the doctor’s exam room alone, leaving my mother in the waiting area. I wanted to take this last appointment solo and after, leave the doctor, the office, and the chemo room far behind. I waited for the doctor, sure in my 21-year old way that I was done. But was I? I fidgeted and played with the equipment in the room. I still didn’t know why I was there at all.
As I sat there, I didn’t think of this experience as having survived cancer. First, cancer had already relapsed once in my body, so sitting there and potentially hearing, “Congratulations, you are cancer free!” really didn’t provide any future assurance that this was the end of the physical fight. The stress and worry of cancer returning, I knew from experience, waited for me on the other side of this visit.
In 1996, the term Cancer Survivor had not yet reached the popular lexicon. Today, there is not a consensus definition of cancer survivor among the cancer community. Some consider a cancer survivor a person who has fought cancer and is now in remission. These same folks define those actively fighting cancer as cancer patients or better yet cancer fighters. Others define cancer survivor as anyone who currently has or has had cancer at any point in their treatments, i.e from the day of diagnosis forward.
To me, the term cancer survivor has personal meanings. My attempt to define it would dilute its empowering connotation to many. The best definition is the one used by folks in the throes of fighting cancer, whether they consider themselves fighters, survivors, or both. The essence of the term is to fight and get through treatments, not to create a standardized definition of the term or some arbitrary level of achievement. So, if you are fighting cancer and consider yourself a survivor, I agree; same for those who feel you are not a survivor until treatments are over. Both are correct.
But, to be told you are cancer free is a cloud-parting day, right?!
Back to the doctor’s office, the doctor walked in, made pleasantries, and put my x-rays and CT films on the viewer. Examining them, he did the professorial hand-to-chin and murmured sounds like, “hmmmm ….” while nodding his head. It was kind of an act, but he did review them exhaustively. He then flipped through my chart and looked at my most recent blood draw results. He turned to me, extended his hand, and said, “Congratulations, there is no evidence of cancer in your body.”
Balloons, confetti, streamers? A lady with a huge cake? Of course not.
I sat there quietly looking at him and shook his hand. It was the same level of emotion as you would arouse when buying stamps at the post office. I said, thank you for helping me or something like that. He explained my follow up routine, the same one I followed after my first fight with cancer, I nodded silently. Thus concluded my anointment as no longer fighting cancer. It could not have been more subdued. We shook hands again, I left, and told my bawling mother the news.
I could muster nothing more.
And frankly, I looked and felt wasted. The treatments took my stamina and every shred of fitness. The fight depleted me emotionally, I felt blue. My sense of humor lay in waste among pills bottles and IV bags. For God’s sake, I had two tubes sticking out of my chest for six months, what’s up with that? I was so tired of the fight that the finish line was not a celebration or even a relief – more like a ‘what the bleep was that?’ moment.
On another note, let me tell you, I was really looking forward to returning to college in a couple weeks to show off my chemo-induced baldness across campus!
The day marked an emotional low point for me having fought so hard just to reclaim normalcy and a return to life, a simple return to the status quo. And thinking back, it would not have been possible to have any other type of feeling that day.
To celebrate, my friend Jesse and I were meeting a couple of buddies at a dance club. It was a Wednesday and it was techno night at Club Nitro! He picked me up at my home. The two of us drove in his car and I said, “Jesse, I have something to tell you.”
“What?” He kept driving.
“I beat it, I’m not sick anymore.”
He took his fist and pounded his dashboard like a man possessed. “Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s awesome, you beat it!” With wide eyes, I looked at this crazy man as he asked, “Aren’t you excited?” as he put his arm around me while driving on the freeway. His reaction, the stark opposite of mine, jolted me into feeling a little upbeat. Maybe it was okay to be alive and feel good about it.
Thinking back to that day, now more than 15 years ago, I wish I could have thanked my doctor more for preserving my life; what a gift from him. His name is Dr. Ronald Hart and I heard he moved to Maine. I wish I could have celebrated more that day, it would make for entertaining reading, but I understand that my reaction could not have been any different given my state.
That was day one of being cancer free.
For my next post, I want to talk about returning to normal and what it’s like for a cancer survivor to return to life after treatments.
Stay healthy, my friends.