“Do you think I can remember what grade I got on a test ten years ago?” the sixth grade teacher demanded of her honor students, who were collectively freaking out over the poor exam grades we’d all received.
I was 12 at the time, and I never forgot that moment. I guess what struck me was the way this teacher, who couldn’t have been more than 23, could speak so dismissively about an entire decade of time. I remember thinking how cool that must be, to have so much life in the rear view mirror.
Now, as I head towards my 54th birthday, what strikes me is how many ways there are to frame the decades I can look back on: by marriage or friendships or jobs… or cancer.
This month is a big anniversary for me: 10 years as a cancer survivor. And in many ways, it’s this past decade that has changed me as no other period of time before ever had.
I’d gotten a lot accomplished before cancer reared its ugly head: college, marriage, career, travel, and divorce. I’d lived independently in fabulous Manhattan apartments, globetrotted as a news and documentary film producer, bought myself a house in NJ, fallen in love, gotten married again, had a baby and blended our son and my husband’s two kids into a true family unit.
And then, wham! Here comes cancer and all the triumphs of the past drilled down to one thing: would I make it — or not? It took two years to really know the answer, but once my final surgeries and treatments were finished, I decided then and there that cancer wasn’t going to be a crisis for me anymore – only an opportunity to take the rest of my life and make it matter every day.
That’s not to say cancer isn’t horrible. It sucks. It’s so awful that once I was finished with treatments and all my surgeries, I got rid of any tissue where I thought it might still lurk. I had a hysterectomy, went through a brutal menopause without any hormone therapy and honestly, if I could’ve figured out a way to live without a colon, kidneys, or stomach, I would’ve gotten rid of all of them too – anything so that I never had to face it all again.
But cancer also changed me in ways I think have made me a better, more thoughtful and spiritually in tune person. Once I had to face death, it made the flip side of life all around me such an easy and beautiful gift to embrace. Cancer made me a more patient parent, spouse and friend. It taught me to listen better, empathize more, forgive quickly, laugh easily and relax in ways that were almost impossible ten years ago.
I know I’m not alone – because of our book, and the volunteer work I do on behalf of local cancer organizations in my community, I meet people in all stages of disease and survivorship. I meet their caregivers, and doctors and friends. We cancer people share a special bond – we know that along with every other living thing, each of us will have our time on this earth, and then one day the sun will rise and we won’t be here to see it.
But this truth only makes life’s fleeting beauty that much more precious. I’m often struck at how when survivors meet, an unspoken rapport develops and the positive energy of their spirits makes everyone around them feel uplifted.
Ten years after being thrown into the cancer club, I see my survivorship as an opportunity to make sure that the energy and light I share with every other person on this journey continues to shine outward, reaching people wherever on the journey they are, keeping hope strong with an abiding knowledge that no matter what they’re facing, they are not alone.