Five years is a magical number to a cancer survivor. So much so, that it’s actually a thing—“The five-year survival rate.”
As per the American Cancer Society:
Survival rates tell you what portion of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. They can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful.
Right. They can’t tell you how long you will live. But they can tell you how likely it is that you’ll still be alive five years after your initial diagnosis. A sobering thought, most certainly, when your cancer diagnosis hits you as hard and fast as a Steinway baby grand falling from the sky.
Yeah, that’s how my diagnosis went. Totally unaware, totally oblivious, totally unconcerned—albeit a little sheepish—when I showed up for my annual mammogram after having skipped a year. Or, two, actually. But I was just forty-three years old and there was no history of cancer in the family. So what did I have to be concerned about?
Sure, it seemed a little odd when the tech asked me to contort myself this way and that…but I didn’t worry. Nor did I worry when she stepped out for a few moments then returned to ask me to repeat the process. Nor did I worry when the head radiologist came to speak to me, saying they wanted to do a biopsy of something they’d found on the scan. What was there to worry about? I was just forty-three years old and there was no history of cancer in the family.
Surely this was a mistake. A blip. One of those anomalies that shows up from time to time. Certainly nothing to worry about. Not even when the pretty doctor with the concerned face told me to come back the next day—with my husband—for the pathology results. I vaguely recall wondering why we’d have to come all the way back to the hospital when they could just as easily tell me it was fine over the phone. Of course, it wasn’t fine. It wasn’t fine at all. But it wasn’t until that very instant—when we were seated in the doctor’s office, a nurse by my side with tissues in-hand—that I finally heard what they’d been trying to tell me for twenty-four hours.
I had cancer.
Even though I was just forty-three and there was no history of cancer in the family. Even though I didn’t have a lump or a bump or pain. Even though…whatever. In my mind, there were a million reasons why I couldn’t have cancer. And yet, there it was.
“It’s going to be a rough year,” the doctor told me, “but you’re going to be fine.”
That should’ve given me some measure of comfort, but it didn’t. All at once I’d gone from blissful ignorance to hyperawareness. Suddenly, I saw pink ribbons everywhere I looked. They were on bumper stickers and T-shirts and tattoos. I spied stickers with pink ribbons on everything from yogurt cups to watermelons. Outside my favorite farm stand there was a pink tractor in solidarity to “the cause” and even the local HVAC supplier had a two-hundred-gallon pink oil tank out front of the storefront. The woman who sliced my ham at the deli counter was perplexed when I burst into tears because she was wearing a baseball cap with a pink ribbon on it. And then there was the television. Every other commercial was for Sloan Kettering, Cancer Centers of America or Columbia Presbyterian. Two cable series I’d been enjoying pre-diagnosis—a Laura Linney vehicle called The Big C and a documentary series called Time of Death—morphed, without warning, into a terrifying glimpse at what might lie ahead. And through it all, the one person I longed to talk to was my mom…but she had just died four months earlier. To say I went into a tailspin is a gross understatement.
Over the last five years I’ve had one lumpectomy, three biopsies, six MRIs, seven mammograms and more ultrasounds than I can count. I went through seven weeks of radiation and a solid twenty-four months of clinical depression. It nearly cost me my marriage. And my sanity. But here I am—five years through the tunnel and almost out the other side. Scans look great. I feel awesome. I go for days—sometimes weeks—on end not even thinking about the fact that I’m a cancer survivor. And I’m more grateful than I can possibly say. On April 23rd, my husband and I will celebrate this milestone that’s become as important as our wedding day. And, on that occasion, I’ll be toasting all the rest of you in the cancer trenches—whether you’re a warrior yourself or standing beside one. And my deepest condolences if you’ve lost a brave soul close to you in this battle.
Here’s to five more years of fighting—and winning. And to the swell of survivors who will eventually outnumber those who have been taken from us along the way.
Are you a cancer-survivor? Fighting the good fight right now? Have you lost someone to cancer? Give yourself a pat on the back or share a mention of your loved one in the comments section.