I ask myself every day why I am still here. Maybe you do, too.
When I was initially diagnosed, I was already fully aware of the fact that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I had been working as an oncology nurse for about six years, which is plenty of time to realize that good people get handed the Cancer Card every day. So, when those words “you have cancer” finally pertained to me, I didn’t think to ask why me? In fact, to the exasperation and disbelief of some of my loved ones, instead I decided to take comfort in shrugging my shoulders and asking, Well, why NOT me?
Throughout my treatment, I avoided attaching any sort of meaning to my experience, and I certainly didn’t want to be told that I was going through the crap-show that is cancer for some reason. I was just taking my obligatory place among all the others who didn’t deserve cancer either. On my chemo days, I’d have my labs drawn, check in at the front desk of the clinic, wait in the waiting room, get my chemo and go home. A few days later, I’d be in the staff locker room with scrubs on, getting ready to spend my day administering chemo to others. I did not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to disclose my cancer status to the patients I worked with – my headscarves and lack of eyebrows did it for me.
Some people did not ask questions, but many did. I got hand-clasps and knowing looks and the occasional random hug in the elevator from a stranger. My patients and I could commiserate, laugh and share tears. I found myself inhabiting a club that I had for so long only observed from the outside, and I began to realize all of the things that I didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, without going through the experience for myself.
Eventually, I was declared cancer-free. I returned to work full time, once again aflutter with the business of the chemo clinic and my role in treating patients efficiently and skillfully, consumed by getting back to the grind. But something was different. I was different. I found myself viewing each patient in a new way; I felt for them in ways I’d never been able to before. Every day, I did my best to comfort new faces with new cancers, each trying to make sense of their own cancer burden. And I began to realize that the question I had successfully avoided for so long was finally surfacing…
Why was my breast cancer hormone receptor positive? So many other young women are diagnosed with hormone receptor negative cancer – a type that is hard to treat and harder to cure. Why was my tumor so superficial and in such a place that I was able to find it myself before it spread? So many of the young women I was caring for had stage IV metastatic breast cancer. These women, women my age, were going to die from this disease. And they had kids! Why should I, with no children to leave behind, get to stay?
It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t figure out how to come to terms with something that seemed so senseless. How could I truly celebrate being a survivor, when I really had nothing to do with it? When so many others, arguably more deserving of a second chance than me, would not be granted one?
When it came to surviving…
Being the scientifically-minded healthcare professional that I am, I went straight to the research. I wanted an evidence-based intervention for my existential crisis. There had to be some study, somewhere, that could help me make sense of this mess. Hell-bent on unraveling the mysteries of cancer survivorship, I began to sift through a plethora of publications, digging myself deeper and deeper into the multitude of theories and academic frameworks that attempted to explain what I was actually living.
Observing my life through the statistical analyses of these authors felt… inadequate. It felt vastly insufficient. It felt cold and clinical and unsatisfying. And while I was recognizing bits and pieces of myself and my experience tucked into the definitions of concepts like cancer-related psychological distress, irreparable loss, post-treatment regret, post-traumatic growth and survivor’s guilt, nowhere within the research was I finding out how to feel better.
In one article I came across, Susan Leigh, a nurse and cancer survivor herself, lamented the fact that that there are “no guidelines on how to survive survival.” After reading that, I thought, bingo! Even the most robust of research studies could not begin to teach me how to successfully survive survival. I saw profound irony in the fact that while apparently my ambivalent survivorship experience was a well-documented phenomenon, I was feeling incredibly alone.
So, is this it? Am I doing it? Am I surviving?
I still ask myself every day why I am still here. And maybe you do, too. But perhaps this is the wrong question. I want my encounter with this life-threatening illness to matter. I want to make something from it. I want my cancer diagnosis to mean something. Yes, cancer happened to me. And chances are good that I’ll never know why, exactly. So I guess the real question is, what am I going to do with it?