My tenth cancerversary came and went almost without notice. I would feel bad about this oversight but maybe it is a sign of good mental health, of having moved on. It was 2001, a year that is remembered darkly anyway for the events of that September.
It was a series of events in my case, each one more portentous than the one preceding. I awoke with a start – a stabbing pain in more lower left abdomen. Then reaching down to feel a large hardened shape that hadn’t been there before. Having a physician colleague palpate the mass when I went to work at the hospital. Being told “you need a CAT scan. I mean today!” So I went to my own primary care doctor. He also felt the mass, ordering a scan and a reading STAT. So I had it done, returning the next day to pick up the results and ferry them back to my doctor’s. It was a rare sunny, balmy day in early December, the kind that fills you with optimism. That lasted until the typed results slipped out of the envelope in the car, revealing the words “leukemia or lymphoma.”
Life was never the same after that. Becoming cancer. Achieving remission. Falling back into relapse. Second remission followed by stem cell transplant. The operative word in this paragraph is life. I still have it.
Here I am ten years later, much longer than the 7.5 months predicted in the literature. A miraculous testament to the theory of targeted biotherapy. A poster child for my own rare disease – t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia.
So I let the anniversary slip by me unnoticed. Maybe I want to forget that cold, cold day when I first read my prognosis, and crouched in the shower crying for my last Christmas season, crying for the for the family weddings I would never witness, for the unborn grandchildren I would never hold.
I do still celebrate, although quietly, as many transplant survivors do, the anniversary of my stem cell transplant, the birth of my renewed immune system, and hence my new “birthday.” August 16th – now that’s a day to remember, although I don’t, remember much of it, that is. The preparatory chemo made me weak. In the morning, at home, I collapsed to my knees in the bathroom. My wife and teenage son had to help me back to my feet and into the bedroom. My wife drove me to the clinic. Before the infusion of my donor/brother’s stem cells, I received 50 mg of Benadryl intravenously. That’s about the last I remember of the procedure. Photographs exist that prove that it happened. But then I still exist which should be proof enough.
My wife drove me to University Hospital for admission to the Bone Marrow Transplant unit, the place where I now work. Although it was August, for some reason I remember it as being cold. The rest of my twenty-two day stay is a cloudy, episodic mixture in memory. My wife kept notes of each day’s events on our Caringbridge page. Someday I will reread them, then set them on virtual paper in narrative form, the next chapter in my Diary of an Illness, for others to read. Perhaps then my memory will be restored.
I am grateful, immensely grateful, to have survived, to continue surviving when I know of others not so lucky, people with my own disease, people with other types of cancer. Cancer once again provides me with a font of new relationships weekly. Most of the new people I meet are folks with cancer or those affected by cancer – the wives, husbands, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers that stream through are clinic, not knowing exactly what to do but trying to do the best they can. Just being there…sometimes that is enough. Which is good because sometimes just being there is all that can be done.
I am grateful but sometimes I think not grateful enough. One of the first lessons a cancer patient learns (right after the lesson that life is not at all fair) is to cherish time, to cherish relationships. We sometimes adapt the conviction that this is a lesson which will change us forever, change the way we relate to the world. We promise ourselves never to forget these lessons, never to fall back into a lazy, unfocused approach to life.
But then time passes. For the lucky years pass. We get further and further from the drama of our illness. We fervently hope for a return to normalcy. I think we never quite get there. We are not as close to death as we were when we were ill. But we are closer than before we were sick, before we were cancer.
For survivorship to be meaningful is has to require a certain level of enduring responsibility. So much was suffered by us, so much by the people that loved us. For the time of our illness immense resources were directed towards – the finest fruits of medical science were laid at out feet, the ministrations of dozens of nurses, aides, technicians, social workers, chaplains, office staff were showered on us. For a while we basked in the prayers and good wishes, the karma of hundreds of people, many we did not even know. Our existence became defined by our struggle with cancer. It brought focus. It offered the glimpse of an epiphany, the possibility of a redemption.
These gifts did not depend on our eventual cure or not. They presented themselves instead as a separate expression of a different kind of healing. For the sake of those others who did not survive, for the sake of all that was expended on our behalf, for the sake of all that it seems that we must strive to honor our own survivorship by remembering those precious lessons that came at so dear a cost. We must strive to be better persons than we were before cancer. We have been given a gift. To not honor it is to compound the tragedy.
Ten years later I am still here. I am still trying.
Take care, Dennis