Surviving...is it really?
In 2016 I received my first "abnormal almost melanoma." When I heard this it was the breath being pried from me. I cried with my husband and told my family and friends it might be cancer. I was fortunate enough to already have connections in the oncology world, and I quickly got an appointment and began the process of doctor visit after doctor visit. Medical bill on top of medical bill. The same process that I had once spoke to others about, but this time I was on the other side. This was me surviving because I was lucky this time it was not melanoma. I found myself going back to life with thoughts of, close call, it was still not my fate to have cancer. I took a breath.
In 2017 I changed jobs, moved to a new state, and uprooted my entire life. This left me with no choice but to travel back to my previous state to see my Oncologist, an added burden. I had been monitoring a mole on my left upper calf. I am very proud of my legs and from the day I started to watch this mole change color and size, although the fear of the unknown was in the back of my mind I still continued to tell myself that this was not my fate. While at a conference in Denver, Colorado I saw my oncologist. With no hesitation he removed the mole and identified he would call me about the pathology. I had at this time changed jobs and on the final day of my job my oncologist contacted me. When you get the call from the number you have seen multiple times with a nurse's voice on the other end it feels ok, the call from the oncologist does not. Stage 1A melanoma was my official diagnosis and surgery was recommended with no lymph node dissection at this time.
A previous cancer patient I worked with had said, "It's like taking a 2x4 and getting hit in the back of the knees. It knocks you off your feet." I felt the breath leave and it didn't come back this time. I was “fortunate” most others would say. “You caught it early.” You're right I am fortunate, but that fortune does not change the face of cancer. Fortune does not equal survivorship, money for medical bills, each time you undress and look at each dark spot and say “is that the one?” Fortune does not inject itself each time someone makes a comment that feels safe to them, but tells you that it is not too serious because it was only stage 1A and “they got it all.”
Six months post-op I reflect back on my story above. The once pried out breath I felt now feels just shallow. Sometimes it’s hard to get full, but I have breath. Every time I go to the doctor and have another mole removed I hold that breath again. But each day that I awake and find a strength in myself, the strength of others and the beauty of life the breath gets less shallow and I find myself surviving. Surviving not in the traditional sense that others have used in reference to cancer, but surviving life. Allowing myself to lean into the vulnerability of not knowing what life holds. When I was asked to write this piece I was sacred and the unknown of not feeling like a survivor...if not a survivor then what?
In the context of my cancer story I need to tell about me. For the past five years I worked as an inpatient oncology social worker for a large University hospital. This was my connection and the job I had left before diagnosis. The University had multiple specialists in all areas of cancer, a
nationally recognized cancer center and a high acuity inpatient unit. I spent my time on the high acuity inpatient unit. For five years I saw very few survivors on the unit. I saw inpatient chemotherapy devastation, radiation burns, invasive surgeries, limb removals, and mostly death. I never saw the patients that came and left the unit and who went on to live life. I saw the “less fortunate.” With such a background why could I not relate to the word survivor. Because I do not feel like a survivor. My stage was 1A. I had surgery, “they got it all...” I was the lucky one. Surviving to me was a word for others who had advanced cancer stages, those who spent hours in chemotherapy and radiation, lost organs and limbs. They were the ones that had tubes, central lines, wigs and the ones that I helped through this. These were the patients that for five years they allowed me the privilege to sit with them in sorrow, happiness and in death. They taught me grace and humility. They taught me that to be a survivor you had to face life, with or without cancer, with vulnerability, humility and knowing your personal worth and the worth of others.
As an Oncology Social Worker, I honored each journey every individual patient was on. The words they used to describe their journey were their words. So today I am surviving but not from cancer. I am surviving because I choose to live life each day and at every moment. I just try to breath. I remind myself daily that through all of life journeys we have to remember just that...it is a journey. Where my journey goes or ends does not depend on how I steer it but how I decided ride with it.