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The Dichotomy of Cancer: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Five years.

It's the milestone. It's the "Hell yeah!" date. I think you're supposed to have a party. And yet, it's also sort of arbitrary when you're talking about breast cancer. After all, I'm only slightly less likely to have a cancer recurrence after five years than I was before five years out.

Today I mark five years from the date of my cancer diagnosis at age 37. I was driving home when I got the call, and it's a damn miracle I didn't drive off the road. Which would have been terribly ironic, I suppose.

Would I go back and undo that fateful call?

Yes.

And no.

The dichotomy of cancer is very real. Some of the happiest people I know are those that have been through a cancer diagnosis. And yet, I know an equal number of people who have passed away from the disease, far too young, far too full of life.

I've never, ever liked the term, "lost the battle." Really? You think suffering chemotherapy, surgeries, hormone therapy, and godknowswhatelse means anything less than you fought the battle of your life? How dare we say that someone "lost" what was never theirs to win when errant cells are going to do what they're going to do, no matter what sort of artillery -- chemical, natural, Eastern, Western -- you throw at them.

How dare we say that my mother, who passed away peacefully, gracefully, and quietly, after five years up against the disease, came up short at all?

But the language of cancer is decidedly complex. Even now, I struggle to bring my friends and family up to speed on the "lingo." I hate that I know it as well as I do. I hate that this is the subject for which I'm becoming best known. I'm the unwilling resident expert on all things grave and deadly.

There is a sort of instant heroism that comes with surviving cancer. I hear it frequently. How brave I am, how much of an inspiration I am. Frankly, after having endured the hell that is diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship, I don't correct people. I'll take it. I had to give up my hair, my breasts, my body, my fertility, my sense of invincibility. Go ahead and call me brave. And yet. I truly don't feel I've done anything that any of you wouldn't do. What is the alternative, after all?

Five years later, and as I saw it in their eyes when I first got diagnosed, I see it people's eyes now. "That means you're all clear, right?" There is a deep need to be okay with it all, to move past it, to get back to the business of living.

I wish I knew. It many ways, it would certainly make life easier. Some days the uncertainty is so unbearable that I almost will the bad news to arrive so I can be done and over with it once and for all. So I can stop fretting over it, and so the black cloud will stop looming over me and those who love me. For in between praising me for surviving, I see their fear that I won't.

But of course, that's not what I want at all. I just want to be back where I was five years ago, when my worst fear was that I would gain 10 pounds, or that I would not get that contract, or that I wouldn't have a good first date.

Now, little things give me huge pleasure. Having a warm, comfortable home and a solid roof over my head, living close to San Francisco, one of the most exciting cities in the world, having crazy wonderful, funny, and lively friends. The meaningful work I do as a event producer for non-profit organizations that inspire and move me past the thoughts of my own mortality.

I'm certain I took all of this for granted at one point. I'm certain because I remember wishing for more. I remember that despite all I had, I spent time thinking about what I didn't have. No husband, no children. This felt like a void, the missing link. The fact that I had just enough each month to pay all my bills and to do some fun stuff, but not enough to meaningfully save for retirement. Now, I marvel that I have enough to pay all my bills, and to do some fun stuff each month. Even living near San Francisco had me complaining at times. The traffic, the cost of living, the weather. Now those gripes seems so quaint. (And yet truth be told, I do curse the cost of living now and then).

There are so many bad things that accompany a cancer diagnosis. You know what most of those are. I don't even need to list them.

But what's so strange about receiving a diagnosis of a grave illness is how much brilliance it can shine on your life. For me, it was almost immediate. Maybe because I had lost my father to two cancers -- melanoma and lymphoma -- in 1997. My brother had suffered a life-changing brain tumor 12 years before my diagnosis, when he was just 29. My mother was battling two cancers -- lung and brain -- when I received my own diagnosis. She died just 15 months after I was diagnosed.

Sometimes this lust for life overtakes me so much that I can't help but want to scream, shout, stomp my feet, and holler: "Listen to this song! Look at this picture! How amazing are we!" It's overwhelming at times -- feeling like you need to ingest life lest the plate get taken away from you too quickly. Before you're done. Before you've had your fill. I almost feel silly, loving it all so much. Sometimes it's truly painful, in that amazing beautiful way that a really fantastic movie moves you to your core. It's almost too good to handle. That's how I feel about life. I want to wear it, eat it, smell it, share it.

Thank you, cancer. I love you.

And I hate you.

For more by Marika Holmgren, click here.

For more on breast cancer, click here.

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