At of the end of March, I'll be two months out of chemotherapy. In every aspect of my life, things should be normal, or really close to it, by now. My body has finally rid itself of the toxins infused through chemotherapy, and my stomach sickness is almost gone. I regain more and more energy as the weeks pass, and I've thrown myself into work, schoolwork, and something mildly resembling a social life to try and put the three months of hell that I went through entirely behind me. It seems like it was years and years ago that I walked out of Carle Cancer Clinic in Champaign with my friend Vaughn, doing a victory dance and singing a little chant about being done with chemo for good. But, at the same time, it feels like yesterday. Eight weeks is both a long and a short time.
Am I really done with cancer?
I say it at least once a day, whether off-hand in a conversation about something else or while actually discussing my ordeal. I had cancer. Had. Past tense. I've been officially in remission for a month now, and the cells no longer remain in my body. As far as my physicality is concerned, the only immediate reminder of what I went through is the six-inch scar on my stomach, telling me exactly where it was that I had a tumor taken out.
But it's still not really gone. The ghost of my cancer is still here, and it haunts me every day. I have to go to doctors' appointments once a month for checkups and blood draws. I text my oncologist when I feel even the slightest weird pain, just to make sure it's nothing of concern. And even ten, thirty, or fifty years out of this, I'll be crossing my fingers during my yearly checkup, still haunted by the few months I spent in surgery and chemo at age twenty.
Emotionally, I play the same game. It's hard not to relate every experience you have, from merely attending class and riding the bus all the way to an unforgettable night out with friends or an awesome family vacation, back to when you had cancer, and things were different. It's an experience that shapes who you are and impacts your decisions from the moment you're diagnosed all the way until you take your final breath, whether that's six months or sixty years after finding out that you have a battle to fight.
I assumed that I'd be done with cancer -- all of it -- the minute my oncologist declared me in remission. To get myself through the rough days of chemo, I used to tell myself that I'd be done really soon, that it'd be over and I could go back to normal. But I'm quickly learning how untrue that is. Sure, things are getting better. My hair will soon be fully grown back, and I won't be known around campus as the "cancer girl." My scar will begin to fade, and every other sentence won't start with, "That one time during chemo..."
But I'll always have a hole in my memory that's filled with hospital trips, hazy, tired nights on the couch, and nausea instead of typical college memories. Maybe people who see me on the street won't immediately recognize that I have cancer, but I'll always know I did. I will always be a cancer patient, despite surviving. And of all of the things I've fought in the last six months, that very well might be the hardest battle, because I'll never win.