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Cancer Survival: Not So Black and White

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I am standing in a sea of dedication bibs. If you've ever attended or participated in a Run for the Cure, you'll know what I mean. Provided by the race organizers, the bib is blank, with a sentence at the top that participants are invited to complete: "I'm running/walking for..." Some participants have made a general, sweeping dedication such as, "Every woman out there who is fighting this terrible disease!" Others aim for simplicity -- "For survivors everywhere."

Most of the bibs name specific loved ones. The women named are often conspicuously absent. At the Run for the Cure I'm attending today, I notice a mature, older man and his friend warming up just a couple steps from me. They're casually chatting, stretching and jumping on the spot. He's dressed in expensive, brightly colored running clothes, and I wonder if today's Run for the Cure is an alternative to his regular Saturday morning run. He wears a bib that reads, "Mom, Joyce, 1938-2002." His running partner's bib says, "Robert's Mom."

Just behind me is a crowd of raucous women. They're covered in bright pink boas, with freshly painted hearts covering their arms, legs and faces. They laugh and dance enthusiastically to the rhythm of the music thumping out of the speakers at the start line, gladly obeying the announcer's call for cheers and applause. I scan through their bibs. "My friend Kathy," "My BFF," "The coolest woman I know." It's unclear to me whether Kathy is living or has passed away. But she's not here walking or running with them today.

My heart stops when I get to the father, daughter and son trio whose bibs read "Mom" and "Wife." The youngest couldn't be more than eight years old.

I remind myself not to stare. This is normal. People die of cancer. Although I have survived a different version of the disease, I am shaken and disturbed.

Since achieving a hard-fought remission more than six months ago, I've become (in some weird, sadomasochistic way) grateful for my disease. I matured as a result of my experience in chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I started a blog to record all that I learned, and people compliment me on my inspirational musings. I re-applied for, and was accepted into, graduate school, something I had been trying to do for years before my diagnosis. My perspective on life and my choices was renewed. I am still me. Just a more determined, clear-headed version. How could that be a bad thing?

But today, my gratitude vanishes. Cancer is a terrible, awful, life-taking, family-breaking disease. How could I dare be grateful for an experience that could have claimed my life? An "experience" that claims the lives of millions less fortunate than me each year?

That seems to be the only difference between those who have died of cancer and me. Fortune. Cancer type, progression of the disease, and available treatment. I feel fortunate that I was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer, and that it has been treated successfully so far. But I am also burdened by the unanswerable question... Why? Why was life renewed for me, but stolen from others? Why did I get a chance to live better, while others were given no chance at all?

Here, I caution myself. My doctors tell me I'll be in follow-up appointments for the rest of my life. My current state of remission could change at any time. I could relapse. And because of my young age, and all the years I have ahead of me, I'm warned that I could develop secondary cancers as a result of radiation treatment. I'm not out of the woods. I never will be.

If I relapsed or developed a secondary cancer, I know exactly what I'd do. I'd make my immediate happiness my top priority. I would spend time with my family. Sit outside in the sun. Write. Sleep in late. Watch my favorite movie over and over. Hug my partner longer. Wash oversized, over-iced cupcakes down with a cold beer. Treasure moments of normalcy. I would savor it all.

But, that's exactly what I did after my diagnosis. That's exactly what I do.

Maybe a cancer diagnosis isn't as black and white as live or die. Perhaps there's a grey area of experience and decisions that I would guess everyone diagnosed with cancer, incurable or otherwise, endures. With the sudden threat of an expiration date, it's natural to at some point wonder, what could I be doing better? How do I make the most of my short time?

The difference between me and that man's mother, that group of women's friend, and that young boy's mom, is not, the type of cancer, its progression, or available treatment. The difference is that I've been given more time.

Standing at the start line of the Run for the Cure on that cold, rainy October morning, I remind myself that my choice to run was right. This morning, I'm running for a good cause. I'm standing beside and in support of people who have been tragically affected by my disease. I am taking control of the time that I have.

The gun goes off. The announcer cheers us on. My feet carry me slowly forward as I weave around and through the crowd, adjusting my speed to my desired pace. The older man and his running partner push ahead, while I leave the pack of power-walking pink boas behind. The young family is out of my sight, but others just like them surround me. A few steps past the start line, the announcer and the thumping music fade behind us, and the crowd begins to quiet. Our heads bow down as our eyes focus in on the pavement and the five-kilometer path ahead.

This blog was originally posted to the Cancer Knowledge Network.

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