The date was October 7, 1986. My family doctor referred 9-year-old me to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when a dysgerminoma was found on my right ovary. When I think of the early years as a patient at St. Jude hospital, I remember tears. Seemingly disembodied cries from other children came from the medicine room and lab where blood work was taken. These cries continue to haunt me and usually peak on the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis.
My parents would say, “they are sicker than you.” From 1986-1992, they were right. My tumor had been treated by surgery. I attended a summer camp for kids who have cancer. I felt like a survivor fraud among friends there. Many of the campers were actively going through chemotherapy. I had simply undergone a surgery until the 1992 relapse.
The night of my first chemotherapy following the relapse was a memorable one. As soon as cisplatin began dripping into my IV, I woke up vomiting. I knew I would no longer feel like a survivor fraud. I endured five months of treatment ending in early 1993. Return trips began at three months and increased to one year. By 2002, I was considered an alumnus and left St. Jude.
No one told me when it was safe to start living again. Maybe it never was safe. I had many benign tumor scares during my St. Jude stay and following. I assumed the worst each time.
In spite of the scares, I fell in love, got married, graduated both high school and college, and life seemingly moved on — except it didn’t. Emotionally, I felt off balance each fall.
Nothing made me feel more off balance than the return of October 7 each year. October 7 was a day that changed my life for the worse — there is no running from that fact. Even this year, on October 7, I found myself looking for ways to tolerate cancer anniversaries. Long-term anniversaries aren’t a well-established topic. With nearly three decades of survival, I have discovered ways to cope.
First, allow yourself to feel what you feel. If you want to cry, cry. Remembering what could have happened without cancer can be sad. Crying does not mean you are feeling sorry for yourself. It means you are processing an event that brought grief. Grief has no time table.
Second, don’t have expectations of others. Unless someone has gone through cancer, they will not understand. If you were diagnosed as a child, it is more difficult to overcome and more difficult for others to understand.
Third, be proud of yourself. Survivor guilt can be a huge hurdle to overcome. On some anniversaries, I think of friends who died from their illness and my mind tells me “they would be doing more with their lives than you.” This belief is false. You and I are here for a reason.
As I write this on my 27th cancer anniversary, I know October 7 will never be an easy day for me. Each October 7 brings another year to add to my cancer survival status. Along with it comes memories, somber reflection, appreciation for those who emotionally helped me through it, and hope for the first day toward my 28th cancer anniversary.