by Patricia Ohanian Lundstrom
You’re a survivor? How long?
This question continues to confuse me. I have no idea how to answer it. I usually say something like, “Well,
I woke up this morning, so about five hours now.” People think this is a witty thing I say, but, in fact, it’s the closest to the truth I can get.
Four years ago, my bone scan confirmed that my breast cancer had spread to my right femur, my left hip, and all up and down my spine. Localized breast cancer is one thing, but an all-out body invasion automatically makes it stage IV. Two weeks earlier, before anyone had seen my bones, my tumor had been a stage II ball of fury in my left breast, and the word “cure” had been bandied about. They don’t use that word when you have stage IV.
But you play the cards you’re dealt, right? And you work your way toward the end. Although with stage IV, the end is a sort of swimmy thing, no longer easily defined. Stage IV means that surviving the original onslaught of cooties isn’t enough, you have to be on the lookout. Forever. It’s kind of unfair, that surviving cancer isn’t enough, that it’s not THE END. Stage IV means never having an end, or rather, having an open end.
So when you ask how long I’ve been a survivor, do I count from the moment of my diagnosis? From my last chemo treatment? From the last time I thought about dropping dead?
At any given moment, I am in the throes of survival, just like everyone else. And I look like everyone else.
I have hair, boobs, and a significant spare tire, so I look as though I have survived the worst.
And I have; I absolutely have survived the worst, so far, and in pretty good shape too. But I can’t help thinking of how much has changed on the inside, at a very real, physical level.
My body has been breached; my cells have been altered. I have been changed at a molecular level by a transformation not yet understood by science. Every three weeks when I was in treatment, in order to battle this attack, in order to save my life, my doctor mixed a combination of poisons – one of which, if it were to accidentally drop onto my skin, would very literally tear my flesh away – and poured approximately two cups of this caustic stew directly into my heart. For three days afterward, my pee was a deadly weapon – contact with my urine could have resulted in sterilization.
Survivor? I’m a gosh darn superhero! Once you get bitten by the spider, your insides are never the same.
And although I suspect battling insane villains is someone’s idea of a challenging storyline, I have yet to see any superheroes signing their children up for the new school year, grocery shopping, making work deadlines, filing the 3,000 pieces of paperwork it takes to run the house and fight a deadly disease, making meals, and kissing booboos. Doing all of this, which is real life, and then every three weeks, saying, “Yes, may I please have some more poison poured directly into my heart?” Survival barely scratches the surface of what cancer patients do every day.
So now that I’m three years out of treatment and life has come back to “normal,” can I claim to be a survivor? It just rubs me the wrong way; maybe because “survivor” has a past-tense connotation. I am surviving, present tense, now and forever more.
You’re a survivor? How long?
All the time.
Patricia Lundstrom is an author, educator, mother, and wife who doesn’t want to talk about her cancer for the rest of her life but will do so if it teaches somebody something. She is currently writing a book, Cancer is Not the Boss of Me: A Girlfriend’s Guide to Having, Fighting, Living with and Laughing at Breast Cancer, to be published in the fall of 2016. Learn more at Facebook.com/CancerIsNotTheBossOfMe.
Everyone has a unique story to share. Do you want to share your survivor story? We consider a cancer survivor to be anyone living with a history of cancer – from diagnosis through the remainder of life.Here are our submission guidelines.