A year ago I had never even heard of National Cancer Survivor's Day, a celebration of life held around the world. This year, however, it's an incredibly important day for me.
What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, I was nearing the tail end of a long six months of hard core chemotherapy treatment. The regimen prescribed by my oncologist involved what is known as IP chemo, a procedure wherein chemotherapy drugs are injected directly into the abdomen (or intraperitoneal cavity) via a port attached to my rib cage. The entire process took about eight hours each time, start to finish, the last two of which were spent with me being rotated this way and that so liters of the cancer-killing medication could slosh around and thoroughly coat my insides.
I get a little queasy just thinking about it now.
After 24 rounds of these, I was OVER. IT. I was so bloated from steroids and chemotherapy drugs that I looked like a non-blue version of Violet Beauregard, the bratty little girl from "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory" who swelled up like a blueberry. I look at photographs of me from that time and the memory of how uncomfortable I felt comes flooding back.
I also remember being anxious this time last year as the end of treatment approached. I did not yet know if the chemotherapy had been successful, or what my post-treatment scans and blood work would show. I did not know if my prognosis would be relatively good, or if my days would be numbered.
My daughter was just six months old at the time, not yet walking or talking. She had just started part-time Montessori daycare. I remember her first day of school like it was yesterday. I was keenly aware of the fact that this might be my only time taking her to school for the "first day". I didn't know if I'd have the opportunity to have more such "first days" with her.
Well, here I am, one year later. My hair and eyelashes have grown back, albeit a little wonky still. And I'm no longer painfully bloated, although I definitely don't have back my pre-treatment strength.
The road to recovery has been slow and painful at times. But I am recovering.
And this week I had the privilege of taking my little girl to her first day of school in a new class. After I dropped her off, I went to my car and cried. Partially because I was emotional seeing her so grown up, sitting like a big girl amongst her classmates. But partially because I had survived. I had lived to see another "first day."
Something else noteworthy happened this week. I was shopping for school clothes for my daughter and came across an adorable little dress that only came in a size 5T. Now, my daughter wears a size 18mo and I knew that it would be years before she could fit into that dress. But I bought it anyway. For the first time since she was born, I did something with the notion of being here more than a few months into the future. And it felt good.
Now, I don't know what the future holds for me in terms of my health. There are still some suspicious spots my oncologist is closely watching, and I'm now facing prophylactic double mastectomy surgery as a result of having tested BRCA1 positive. But none of us really knows what the future holds, do we? All I know is that I am now comfortable being called a Survivor. Even if there is cancer in my body, I still consider myself a Survivor. Because I've learned to live with this disease, and I've committed to do whatever it takes to survive and be here for my husband and daughter.
In a way, that's what we moms do; we endure and we survive. Because we made an unspoken pledge when we became moms that we were going to do our best to see our kids through. And that's what I'm going to do.
I will be having a birthday in a few months, another milestone I wasn't sure this time last year that I'd have the privilege of experiencing. And the way I'm going to celebrate? I will be surrounded by other survivors in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, for the first ever National Women's Survivors Convention. I can't imagine a better way to celebrate another precious birthday than to be among other survivors.
Because just like moms, there's strength in numbers and we survivors need to stick together.
How are you a survivor?
Images (top to bottom) via Brooke Kelly and the author.