An entire year has elapsed since I was diagnosed with colon cancer.
The cancer experience is esoteric in nature. Only so much can be conveyed through storytelling and art, but I will do my best to share why this day is not a joyous one for me.
There’s a complicated sense of disquiet as I lean into my second year of life with cancer.
Imagine, if you will, that cancer is like a willow tree.
I’m not much of a botanist, but I know this: some species of willow have an extremely invasive root system.
The shallowest of roots protrude through the ground, cracking pavement and tearing up the earth around them. Unseen beneath the trunk, more roots stretch deeper into the earth, like tendrils grasping thirstily toward buried water lines. They will destroy what they must to get what they need to survive.
To top it off, the willow’s weeping stems allow more trees to propagate as seeds blow in the wind.
On one hand, it’s relatively easy to kill a willow tree. Yet, to remove all traces is an almost unconquerable task. First, you have to dissect the trunk. Then you must dig up the roots. Finally, carefully, all of the seeds need to be removed to prevent more trees from growing. If you’re not careful, you could end up playing willow tree whack-a-mole.
Even the most skilled arborist will leave vestiges of the tree beyond their control. The soil where it grew will never be exactly the same as it was before it became the tree’s home. There’s simply no going backwards.
Life after cancer treatment feels similar to that. The shadows of disease still remain, even though there’s no evidence that there’s cancer present in my body.
There’s no fantastic name for this.
Some may call it “survivorship,” but this liminal space free from cancer but full of trauma feels like it needs a more encapsulating descriptor.
This is where I live now: the in-between. Not quite sick, but not quite well, either.
Most days are great days, but some are peppered with moments of an almost paralyzing fear of recurrence.
Since my tumour is gone, my cancer is most likely to come back in my liver or lungs.
I’m not thrilled at the prospect of either.
A number line
…but will it come back?
Each number indicates a year. Each chevron indicates the likelihood that I will have a recurrence by the corresponding year after my initial diagnosis.
If I make it past year five without any recurrence, I’ll more or less be considered cured.
One down. Four to go.
There are days where the hullaballoo of surgery and chemotherapy seem like a distant memory. Time forgets. Quickly.
I’m not mad about this and don’t think I’ve repressed anything in an unhealthy way. It’s just surprising to me how easy it’s been to keep moving forward.
The days where I cope well far outnumber the days where I do not, and I am grateful for that.
I love those days. They’re the ones that I live for!
Those good days feel magical and carefree. It’s how I imagine I used to feel as a kid during summer vacation, savouring each moment, wanting the day to go on forever.
Not every day is a great one. There are some dips now and then.
The lowest of days are ones where I feel like a prisoner awaiting the headsman’s block. Even if life is enjoyable moment to moment, there are fleeting glimpses of the executioner now and then. He offers a little head nod to keep me in line, as if to remind me that mine can be removed whenever he feels like it.
Luckily, those are few and far between.
My waspy self will concede that there have been many positives over the last year.
Through cancer, many different relationships have been strengthened. A lot of people came through for me in ways that I couldn’t’ve asked for or predicted. I’m grateful for that but won’t drop names because I’ll probably forget someone.
I’ve started to find my voice as an advocate and member of the cancer community. While this might not seem like a big deal to most, it’s extremely important for me to be able to give back to communities and people who’ve supported me along the way.
For this reason, I am volunteering my time and experiences in ways that seem to make my spouse question my sanity. But a fire has been lit, so I just have to run with it.
I greatly enjoyed being involved in Young Adult Cancer Canada’s virtual Survivor Conference, sharing my story with carcinomies and friends of cancerland, while also moderating a panel discussion exploring how a person’s relationship with cancer changes over time.
This year, I’m also a co-chair for Colorectal Cancer Canada’s upcoming community conference and will also be facilitating one (or more) of the discussions that are in the works there.
I’m also getting more involved as a patient voice as it relates to research. There’s a huge push to include a patient perspective in cancer research now, so I’m hoping to co-author some legitimate studies. I, coincidentally, may have the chance to work with my surgeon and a friend on a study or two.
Small world. Weird world.
The International Congress of Academic Medicine in Quebec City will be a great chance to meet some global leaders in research, which I’m looking forward to. I was fortunate to be selected to go on a scholarship. I guess my Twitter shitposts are making a difference.
The expansion of my network is at the top of my priority list this year, so I’m attending a few conferences where I’ll have the chance to meet with leaders in the oncology space. Meeting people has always led to more opportunities, which I’m eager to grasp at.
The work won’t stop.
Thanks for reading.