A year ago today, I was diagnosed with cancer. In the days and weeks that followed, the news got progressively more frightening.
First, my doctor told me the variety of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is more aggressive, harder to treat and more likely to return than other types.
Then I found out the pain in my neck that had developed the weekend before was not, in fact, because I slept wrong, but was a swollen lymph node pushing up under my collarbone, indicating the disease had already spread beyond my chest.
Later, a genetic test would reveal the BRCA1 gene mutation that had been hiding in my DNA all my life, like a ticking time bomb.
Those weeks of terror are not unlike the news cycle we are all living in now.
Every day reveals new horrors and challenges brought on by the spread of COVID-19. As time passes, we find out someone else from our overlapping social circles has it, or has died from it. Much like the cancer support groups I joined after my diagnosis, the attendance in our daily lives is slowly decreasing.
But here I am, I have been alive for another year. It’s been a pretty shitty year, but I’m still here, and so many others are not. That knowledge makes it difficult to celebrate.
It’s especially challenging in a week where I’ve lost a friend and colleague to COVID-19. In the time since his diagnosis, I’ve taken my temperature five times a day, paranoid that I’m working to escape one plague only to succumb to another.
I had originally planned to mark this occasion with a trip to Italy. Now Italy is experiencing death on an unimaginable scale. Italy is dying, but I am still alive.
So, instead of celebrating life, I’m hiding from death in my small apartment with my husband and our cats. But still, I’m thankful. All cancer patients are thankful.
I’m also angry and sad and more than a little burned out. I feel guilty for having any of those feelings when I know so many others have it far worse right now.
For the past year, I’ve been poked, prodded, pumped full of toxic chemicals, had several body parts removed and been zapped with radiation.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to sleep through the night or to feel at home in my own body. I’ve lost touch with confidence, but become quite familiar with faith.
I’ve thought about death every hour of every day, always looking over my shoulder to see if I can tell when it’s going to overtake me, as it has so many others. It’s always there, on the horizon. It’s there for all of us.
2020 was going to be the year I clawed back some semblance of my old life. I was going to travel again, explore new countries, meet new people and get back in shape.
But like everything, this plan got swept away by COVID-19. There will be no travel, no parties, no leaving the house. There’s no escape from the chemotherapy pills and their side effects. No outrunning the crushing tide of stress, disappointment and fear.
All I can do now is let it wash over me, so I can come out on the other side and take a deep breath before the next comes in. I can avoid drowning.
Right now, I guess that’s the best anyone can do.
We’ll find ways to celebrate the milestones that will keep coming despite the terror around us — birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We’ll also find ways to mourn the people and plans we’ve lost, even without the familiar comfort of human contact.
And when it is all over, whenever that happens, we can be thankful just to still be here.
This post was also published on Medium.
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