by Rachael Yahne
“You don’t owe anybody but you to be true to yourself,” he told me.
I woke up on my 36th birthday with a sense of dread and not for stereotypical reasons. I’d be horribly unoriginal to be only depressed about getting older. For many cancer survivors, getting old and the privilege of added years is quite the opposite; it’s overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly fulfilling.
So no, my tears came from what so many of us call survivor’s guilt. A deep and gnawing sense of heartbreak for the other people with cancer I knew – one in particular – who rode out the wave of cancer and treatment till it overtook them. For the man who answered with a smile and a laugh: “Oh, I’m never getting out of here” when I asked when he’ll be finished. He wasn’t sad. There was no remorse or fear in his eyes – just a warm and tender acceptance, and an appreciation for the absurdity of life.
Even though he showed not the slightest amount of regret or pain, my heart still ached for him and others every year on my birthday and my anniversary of completing treatment 18 years ago.
It seemed no matter how many years or decades went by, the emotions and questions still lived within me. I felt crippled by a self-imposed pressure to live up to phantom expectations of a big, grand, exciting life. A life not only big enough to satisfy my own dreams I’d conjured up in a hospital bed at 17 but also the dreams and wishes of others who weren’t given the unfathomable gift of survival.
My birthday gift to myself could be to live my truth: that all these emotions are real, worthy, and can happen at once.
As if I could know, or be responsible for, their unfulfilled futures and years lived that I knew nothing about – somehow forgetting the balance and beauty of life. So for this day every year, I carry more guilt than excitement. I feel more shame for things I have not yet accomplished, and may never, than the spirit to celebrate. And I live with the fear that maybe my higher power, my comrades in the hospital, my doctors, and my family might be the slightest bit disappointed in me for not living up to what they’d hoped for in my surviving years.
So when my friend and fellow cancer survivor started my morning with a happy birthday text, I responded with the truth of my feelings. On any other day, I’d keep such less-than-positive feelings about being a survivor to myself. Such feelings worry other people more often than resonate. I have watched a sense of panic wash over their faces. I have felt more alone after admitting these darker existential questions than I have felt seen or understood.
“I just don’t always understand why I got to live,” I told him.
“Life is such a gift and you’ll never know the why or how,” he responded. “And you don’t owe anybody but you to be true to yourself.”
To be true to myself, if just for today, included feeling these emotions. Truth meant allowing space for both gratitude for all the memories I had made in my miracle extra years, and heartbreak for those whom I’d had to say goodbye to. My birthday gift to myself could be to live my truth: that all these emotions are real, worthy, and can happen at once.
I can’t pretend that only one text or such a small willingness can dissipate next year’s guilt, or banish the fears of disappointing anyone, including the little girl-me who imagined a wonderful, sweeping love story of a life after she got out of that hospital. Life is, after all, full of challenges and disappointments. It cannot be any other way, and that is a gift in and of itself.
But we survivors know that these hardships are not in vain. My morning’s pain became the very thing that amplified my joy and wonder of it all while sitting at a restaurant and watching a sparkler stuck in a tiny slice of cake fizzle out.
I may not know why I was able to live. I may never find the answers to so many questions cancer gave me. But I can choose to bask in the delightful mystery of life that my whole life may be lived as one never-ending search and accept that life loves us enough to never give us all the answers. But then I can always have something to explore, to feel, to live for.
Rachael Yahne is a stage IVB lymphoma survivor, fashion and lifestyle writer, essayist, and award-winning blogger. Her stories have been published by Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and The Seattle Times, among others. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA. Find out more about her work and journey at RachaelYahne.com.