We all have milestone dates in our lives. Dates that come around each year that you either dread or celebrate, or perhaps both. The most common -- birthdays -- are universal and completely out of our control, but you never forget your birthday (even if your husband/boyfriend/wife/dog does). Anniversaries, in the most common form, are the day you celebrate a partnership. Or perhaps you note each year the anniversary of someone's passing. As we get older, these last type of anniversaries tend to accumulate.
When you are a cancer survivor, you have an additional date that is etched in your memory like your social security number. Your cancerversary. For many of us, we use the date we were diagnosed. Like JFK's assassination or September 11, you'll never forget where you were or what you were doing when you hear the words, "You have cancer."
For me that date is February 1, and I'm now a 3-year cancer survivor.
And yet a cancerversary is more like a birthday than an anniversary in many ways. It is the day that your life as you knew it ends, and a new life begins. Because no matter what the outcome, life is never the same after a cancer diagnosis.
For the last several weeks, I thought about my upcoming cancerversary with a combination of pride, dread, sadness, happiness, and relief. Sound schizophrenic? Welcome to life as a cancer survivor.
In many ways, this date has become THE most important milestone date for me. After all, I'm still 2 years away from the seemingly magical 5-year mark, where I get to let out a huge, audible sigh of relief and consider myself "out of the woods." So in that sense, I feel eager for the years to tick by so I can proudly say, "I'm a 5 year survivor." Along with my own sense of accomplishment, I'll look forward to seeing the relief on people's faces when I tell them. After all, that 5-year mark is universally known as the "all clear" mark, and there's no question that people equate it as close to a cure as you can get with breast cancer.
Which of course, is not completely fair or true. There are plenty of us who made it 5, 10, 15 years only to hear that those pesky malignant cells were just waiting until you kicking back sipping on your cancerversary glass of champagne to surprise you with a recurrence.
My dear friend who went through treatment just one year before me jokes about how her invitation will look to her 5-year bash. It will go something like this: "Woohoo! I made it 5 years! Screw you cancer! (but really I know it can still come back, so let's not celebrate too much lest we jinx ourselves)." Cautiously optimistic, in other words.
So we celebrate these cancerversaries tentatively, but joyfully. This hybrid of joy and nervousness, or gratitude and anxiety -- this is the reality for cancer survivors, and it's part of what we might call "the new normal."
We also celebrate that other major milestone -- birthdays -- in a way that tends to be more grateful than we did before -- as though we truly are living them in real time -- not a reflection of what we haven't achieved, or a fear of what's to come. Never again will I complain about birthdays in that time-honored and socially acceptable way that people of a certain age - mostly women - seem to. When I turned 40 this summer, there were no obligatory, "Woe is me. I can't believe I'm 40. Might as well have one foot in the grave" jokes. Instead there were, "Hell yes! I'm 40! Now on to 50!" exultations instead. I suppose that's one thing I can "thank" cancer for: I'm not the stereotype that bitches about birthdays.
What does one do to celebrate a cancerversary? Go out to dinner? Throw a party? Buy yourself something pretty?
My answer is simple. You celebrate that you got to wake up this morning. And that's enough for me to want to pop a bottle of champagne.