Having Cancer Didn’t Change My Life


I’ve never felt infinite.

I’ve never felt like I would carry on forever, or that my youth protected me somehow. I never viewed my existence as vital or particularly special. I never aspired to leave a legacy or ensure my name was included in future (probably inaccurate) text books. I am me, and that was always enough.

The worst thing about my cancer diagnosis was the abrupt loss of the unknown. All the adventure had suddenly been taken out of everything. I was spoiling goods on a new shelf, ticking down the days to my expiration date. I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles and books about cancer, about the people who have survived, or at least endured it, and I wish I could say the experience changed me as fundamentally as it changed them. That I experienced a deep and profound sense of enlightenment, or sudden motivational drive, but I didn’t. Not really.

Cancer doesn’t make your bills go away, or ensure you have food on your table. It doesn’t sit up and talk with you at night or make sure that your boyfriend doesn’t break up with you. It doesn’t tuck your daughter in at night or help her with her homework. Cancer isn’t romantic, it’s just death by measurable degrees.  It’s just the end of a single life, another death to add to the insurmountable decay of humanity and I didn’t have any illusions about it.

When you’re twenty four with cancer, people are afraid of you. Your friends are there but you can see the confused sort of fear in their eyes. A fear they can’t quite place. Some instinctual part of them understands that, somewhere inside, you’re carrying the kryptonite to their 20-something, free spirited ideals. You are the face of their impending mortality in the most vital years of their lives and that’s not easy for anyone to face. Some couldn’t be there, and I have never blamed them. Cancer is, in my experience, harder for the people who love us. No one wants to watch their friends die.

I did live everyday with a little more intent. I appreciated the moments for what they were; the snapshots of what might be my last hours on earth. I did what I’d done every day before but with more meaning, I paid more attention. I cherished laughter and amusement. I made myself embrace sadness and felt thankful for my tears. I listened to music, really listened to it, and made myself feel it, marvel at it. I spent hours watching my daughter sleep, memorizing the features that were so much like mine but especially those that were entirely hers.  I touched her face, her hands, her feet and hair and felt that she was enough. If everyone has to leave a legacy, I was, and am, content with mine.

I laughed a little harder, I joked a little more. I jested endlessly through the appointments; my mom always complained I wouldn’t let her be properly sad. But I’d gone through my life finding humor in all my struggles prior, I didn’t think my impending death needed to be any different. I appreciated myself a little more and acknowledged some rough truths about my past with more ease. There was a strange sense of freedom in finally understanding the truth about the past; that we can’t change it and grieving over it doesn’t make it better or different. I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of purpose, or a need to accomplish a thousand things before I died. I just wanted to live in the life I had created with more awareness.

Surviving cancer when, for a while anyway, I didn’t think I ever would, didn’t make me feel special. I didn’t feel miraculous, or accomplished. I hadn’t ‘fought’ any harder than anyone else. I was lucky. I was blessed, maybe. But I was still just me. I was of course relived and excited, thrilled that I’d gotten my mysterious future back, but I still had to go to work, pay my bills and make sure my daughter got to school on time. Nothing changed, really. There was no dramatic climax to my cancer experience, but maybe, just maybe, I carry a little something more with me.

Maybe I have an understanding that we are only a passing breath in time. That little of what we do here will truly ever last, or matter, or effect anyone, but that that shouldn’t take the joy out of living. It shouldn’t make the sun shine any less bright or the stars any less miraculous. I think I carry a little bit of death with me now, and it adds color to the mundane. It shows me the nature of people and guides me toward the things that really matter. Maybe, after seeing death, I’m a little more apathetic. A little more in tune.

But I’m still just me, another mind among billions. Sometimes I feel like that’s my true victory, hanging onto myself in the face of my own mortality. Being able to step through the oppressive shadow of death and say “I’m still here, and I haven’t changed.”