“Here. Do you see? These dots here; they look like stars.”
The radiologist is kind, speaking to me slowly as she points out the constellation on the backlit mammogram. They are in my right breast, she explains, these celestial beings that are often sentinels of cancer before is a lump. If I look very carefully, I can see them, and they do look sort of like stars, way more than they look like anything bad. But, she explains gently, while she’ll need a biopsy to be certain, she is pretty sure that they are actually…cancer.
That was seven years ago, this week. To be honest, I forgot this “cancerversary” until my sweet husband arrived home one day with pink flowers in his arms. I am not sure which part of this story is my favorite: the flowers, or the “forgot”. My husband is a gem, kind and thoughtful, so while I am deeply touched by this kind of extraordinary gesture, I am not shocked. My failure to remember that while I was busy, I had inadvertently neglected to mark another year since cancer? Now that is unbelievable.
I run into that same radiologist one day, years later, in the stairwell of her building, which is also home to my kids’ pediatrician. I am picking up a prescription and then, there she is, walking up the stairs!, and there I am, walking down the stairs!, well enough to have left cancer behind and replaced it with regular mom stuff, light-years away from that day we’d met.
So I stop her, of course, practically tackling her in my excitement, feeling the thrill of a school kid running into her teacher at the mall. I introduce myself and proceed to gush shamelessly, and with no regard for her undoubtedly busy schedule, about my gratitude for her kindness and honesty that first day, when she pointed out those stars, and three days later when she called to give me the news that set me on the celestial voyage.
Oh, I go on and on, proudly updating her about the difficult treatment decisions I’ve made along the way, how well I’m doing now, how much my kids have grown up since then, and then, more gushing about the particular things she had said that have stayed with me all this time. Patiently, she listens, and, as if I have a thing to do with it, graciously congratulates me on doing so well. I bound out of the building, marveling at the serendipity: another day, another minute even, and I would have missed her! I would have missed the chance to tell her how great I am doing! I am so proud of myself; heck, I bet she is proud of me, too! I am walking briskly, on air, in the parking lot, delighting in the thrill of victory in that place filled with so many painful memories.
And then, as I reach my old familiar minivan, the one that I drove so casually to the mammogram that day, the one that carried me as a passenger to and from surgeries and chemotherapy and a whole year of treatment afterwards, the one in which I drove carpool while bald, and often wept bitterly while alone, and, eventually sang with the radio again while surviving, I have to slow down. I am gasping, sobbing. I have begun to weep. I cry the whole way home.
I feel protective, motherly even, about the girl who sat in the waiting room that day, a good girl following doctor’s orders, awaiting the results of her first mammogram. She does not seem like a grown-up me as I think of it now, but a childlike version of myself, an innocent who does not see the danger ahead. I want to wave my arms and shout to her to protect her, to warn her, so that she can at least have her guard up. I can see how her world is about to be rocked, in small ways, and then larger and larger ones, and how she is changed along the way. I can see things she won’t even realize for a long time, and I am just so sorry and sad, grieving in reverse, for all she’s going to go through. For her, for that girl that I once was, for the ways she tried to be smart and brave and make everyone proud along the way, for her my heart breaks.
This is how it is, in the post-cancer galaxy. For a long time, you cannot believe that there will ever be a day that you don’t think about cancer. Some people tell you that there will be, but you know that can’t possibly be true. It is true that not everybody gets the chance to ever again live without cancer, and it turns out to have nothing to do with how good a job we are doing, and everything to do with the luck of the draw.
It is true that healing takes way longer than you think it will. At first, you can’t get through an hour without thinking of cancer, certainly not a whole day. After a really long time, it’s still a few times a day, but one day you notice that you don’t cry so much anymore. You move on with your life in whatever way you have the opportunity to do. You don’t even notice how much better you are because you are too busy to be paying attention. And then, one day, while you are doing great, taking your survivor self along, minding your own survivor business, something grabs you and makes you catch your breath. Something that makes you remember where you started and how far you’ve come, and you are flooded with unexpected and unbidden feelings of joy and victory, of loss and grief, and often, of both.
I guess those feelings are always there, even if they are hidden. Like the stars, they return in their seasons, unchanged, for our review. It is only we who see them differently, we who are changed, season to season and year to year, in our vantage point. Even if, this year, we were lucky enough to be happy and busy and well. And we forgot.