03/12/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Graduation Day: Dying From Cancer to Clean Scans in Six-Month Intervals


I had my check up at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Hillman Cancer Center recently. It's been my regular haunt ever since being diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in the fall of 2011. In the days leading up to the appointment, I was, as always, irrationally paranoid about every bump and bruise and utterly convinced that I had only days left to live. "What the hell is that?" I'd say in the shower, only to find that the offending lump was in fact some completely normal anatomical part that was supposed to be where it was and had been for the prior 28 years of my life. One day I found something really large that turned out to be my bicep. Is it supposed to feel like that? Jesus.

I'm pretty convinced that I also manufactured a crisis by feeling up the nodes in my thigh so much that I bruised the area around my junk, causing me to worry about the "strange sensation" taking place. I immediately began to formulate my last goodbyes and figure out who I should give my surplus of Magic cards to (they aren't even legal to play anymore, but what did you expect from a young adult cancer survivor -- a current deck of Magic cards? What, do you think we're made of money?). At the appointment, the PA noticed similar bruising in the nodes between my armpit and chest, which had previously been described to me as "bumpy." It was at this point I wondered if I could actually give myself cancer from checking so hard for signs of cancer. Or at the very least, a severe case of internal bleeding. Thoughts cropped up of that scene from every medical drama in history where the doctor comes out and says very sadly, "I'm sorry, we can't stop the bleeding." And I think to myself, Wait, what? Don't you have like science and bags of other people's blood and stuff like that? I mean, wrap it in a T-shirt for God's sake. And I think of how much I would really dislike being the subject of one of those scenes because I pressed too hard while checking my nodes.

I did my X-ray, blood work, and obligatory waiting room meditation before they called me back and stripped me down. I met a new PA student who checked me over and wanted to talk about what I was doing in life, and all the other mundane things people say to one another, while all I could think about was how bumpy my nodes were. I stumbled through the conversation until the regular PA came in, who I'm very comfortable with and who has made this whole close to death thing a little less crappy. As it turns out, all my worrying was for nothing (isn't it always? Worrying is, by its very nature, useless). The X-ray was clear, which meant my core was not filled with death, and the blood work confirmed that, yes, my blood was mostly made of blood, and not terrifying cancer Legos waiting to combine into a macabre pirate ship and sail right into my brain (though the castle Legos were my favorite). Incidentally, I often asked for Legos for Christmas, only to make my mother put them together for me. It was obvious at an early age that I wasn't going to be an engineer.

We talked for a while, because, even though we meet routinely at an appointed time to make certain I'm not actively dying, I like to think that she and I are friends. Then, suddenly, she informed me that I had graduated to six months. I was surprised, because I didn't think I'd be at six months for several years. "Nope," she said. "One year after diagnosis you go to four, and two years after you graduate to six." I went into this appointment convinced that I'd have to replay the scenario after my diagnosis where I went around telling everyone I was going to die, and that I loved them. And I came out of it not only with a clean bill of health, but with the added bonus of being considered healthy enough to last an extra two months on my own at a time.

As a young adult cancer survivor, I will never stop worrying about dying before I've lived long enough to leave my mark, to positively affect the world, and do whatever other things my mother would no doubt disapprove of. Every time I make the trip to the doctor, all of the emotions surrounding my initial diagnosis come flooding back. But in a strange, dissociative kind of way because the memories have faded, and all I really feel now is that I'm submerged underwater in a claustrophobic sea of terribleness. The sensation causes me to find things that aren't there, and to worry myself into a bad place. I blame this partially on the come down from surviving cancer, the getting back to "normal." I have a wealth of experience with life and death and priorities and trivialities, intense emotions spawning from a serious existential crisis, and the lessons that facing a terminal illness can teach you. But all of this fades when the tests start to come back clean, and distance begins to seep in between you and what almost prematurely ended you. I'd like to be more conscious of the divide, and learn how to better reconcile the urgency I felt after my diagnosis with the humdrum of daily life. It's a lofty goal, though I'm sure it's possible. I'm not the only cancer survivor, stumbling through life trying to make sense of it all. I'm sure I'll get there. After all, I have at least six months to do it.