The month of July marked 3 years of being "in remission" for me. Two more years and I am officially pronounced "cured", although my oncologist is quick to remind me that no one is ever truly "cured".
I know that. But three years down the road, I don't worry about it so much now.
I used to.
When I first woke up after my first operation and saw my husband's face, I knew something was terribly wrong. I've never seen his face so white, so strained. He could barely speak.
I thought he must have misunderstood the doctor.
Then my doctor entered the room and I saw his face too.
My doctor said it would take 3 days for the test results but I saw his face, I heard his voice and I knew.
I spent the next three days comforting my family and convincing myself that I couldn't possibly have cancer. I was thirty. Women at thirty didn't get cancer, did they? It was something else. Something easy. Something non-fatal.
When I called the doctor's office three days later, asking for my test results and heard the nurse's chipper voice turn suddenly solemn as she told me the doctor himself would give me the results, I felt like I'd swallowed ice.
My doctor picked up the phone and suggested we come in to see him. Like I could stand to wait another day to hear what I already knew. I told him I was better off just having it all upfront and he said, "I'm sorry. You have cancer."
The next few days were foggy as I kept staring at myself in the mirror and trying out the words "I have cancer" - trying to make them fit.
It just didn't seem real. I was a mother of young children. A wife. A woman with her whole life ahead of her. I couldn't accept the diagnosis and I decided that there must be different levels of cancer where some types were deadly and others were merely annoying.
When we met my oncologist for the first time a few days later, I trotted out this theory. I said something enlightened like, "This isn't so bad, is it? I mean, you said it's a slow-growing cancer so it's not like I could die from this anytime soon, right?"
The pity on his face told me more than his words as he assured me that if I gave it a few more weeks, I might be beyond help.
That got my attention.
In the space of time between that appointment and my hysterectomy, I faced the fact that I might not live. I might not see my kids grow up, get married, have families of their own. I might leave my husband with no one to love him, no one to help him, no one to anchor my family.
I kept telling my hubby to double my life insurance before the operation but he refused. He wouldn't even consider it. It was like the more I looked at the possibility of dying, the more he stubbornly looked away. He wouldn't speak of anything but me growing old with him.
The night before my surgery, I couldn't sleep. I sat up and began to pray that God would give me another fifteen years, at least, so I could finish raising my children. But if He wouldn't, I prayed that He would bring another woman into my family's life who would love my husband and adore my children in my place.
I didn't grieve. I wasn't afraid. I faced that night with peace.
The next morning, it hit me. They wheeled me into the surgical prep area, just one more patient in several rows of patients. Different hospital staff kept coming up to me and asking my name, my diagnosis and if I could explain my upcoming procedure to them as they poked me, prodded me, labeled me, swabbed me and examined me.
It was nearly the most humiliating experience of my life.
I felt like an animal, a curiosity, a medical speciman.
I started to cry and since I absolutely hate to cry, this made it worse. I couldn't speak to them anymore. I couldn't look at them. One woman took pity on me and asked if I had any family I'd like to have with me and I asked for my husband, knowing it was useless. We'd agreed that after they brought me back to the operating area, he would run the errands he needed to run and be back before I woke up.
He was already gone.
That was the most "un-me" I think I've ever felt. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't find the spine to tell them to just leave me alone. I couldn't snap at the team of residents who kept coming back to examine my chart and poke me and discuss me as if I were deaf and blind.
The week after my surgery was a blur of morphine, percocet, and pain but I remember my visit with my oncologist the next week and the welcome news that all the cancer had been removed.
My experience with cancer changed me. I couldn't just pick up my life again. It was like I had all the same hats but my head was a different shape and nothing quite fit.
I quit running my own business. I wanted to be home when I was home. Not expecting a phone call. Not focused on business.
I started making dinner with my kids a priority for every night we had together.
I made sure my husband and I had at least one romantic date a month.
I still do.
I used to feel sick to my stomach with nerves days before every check-up with my oncologist. Now, I don't feel nervous until I walk into his office.
I'm grateful to be three years out. I'm grateful to have more time with my family. I'm grateful to know what is really important and what isn't.
I'm just grateful.