Today I received my 5 year CT scan. It was 5 years ago - to the very day - I received my first, post relapse, clean scan.
It feels like a lifetime ago.
In a way it was.
Because of the relapse I had shortly after my first clean scan in the spring of 2012, I had to wait 2 years before I could call myself a Survivor. You have to tread lightly with labels in the cancer world. We don’t say “cancer free,” we say “no evidence of disease.” We don’t say “healthy,” we say “clean bill of health.” Everything seems to have the silent and implied “for now” tacked on to the end. Everything is protecting (and preparing) you for the possible relapse. No one wants to be the patient who screams “cancer free!” to the world, only to have the cancer come back 2 months later (trust me, I was that patient).
After relapsing within the first 6 months, the chances of it happening again were high. Refusing the bone marrow transplant and opting for just radiation, increased those odds. I was given a daunting 10% chance of making it to year 5 without the cancer returning. 10 percent. I had to readjust my expectations of my life. I had to hold my breath. I had to wait several more years before I could declare myself “cancer free.” But when I made it to year 2, when I could once again breathe, I had apparently earned the title of Survivor.
I used to take pride in calling myself a Survivor. It was a term of power, of strength, of accomplishment. I beat cancer. Twice. I truly felt like I had survived. And I would carry that title with me for years, summoning my survivor warrior alter ego when I was faltering or, sometimes, just needed to feel like a total badass that day. Being a Survivor kept me going. It put me in a club with other strong men and women who had similar plights to my own. I wore my survivorship like a badge of honor. Like a badge of courage. It was a silent badge that said, I made it.
And then last fall, Brad got cancer. Stage 4. And at first, my warrior survivor badge gave us both courage. We’d been through this already. I took my Survivor strength and carried us both. We’d done the research and knew how to stare cancer straight in the face and tell it to fuck off. But as his cancer continued to spread and his organs started to shut down, my strength wavered. “Fuck off, cancer” started to be replaced with “Fuck you, cancer.”
And then Brad died. 101 days after his diagnosis. Without even enough time to process what was happening, my brilliant, hilarious, thoughtful 35 year old husband was gone.
And I was no longer just A Survivor. I was THE Survivor.
I wasn’t standing stronger. I was the only one left standing.
The term Survivor took on an entirely new meaning.
Survivor was no longer what I had accomplished. It was a cruel reminder of what I no longer had. This word, this single word, that used to bring me strength, now brought me to me knees. It crushed me. It was a cruel joke from the universe.
Today, lying in the cold and sterile exam room - tears rolling down my face as the machine instructed me to, once again, hold my breath - I didn’t feel like a Survivor. I felt weak and scared and alone. It was my first scan without Brad waiting in the next room. The first one without him there to sit with me and distract me as we waited for the results to come in.
It was my first scan as The Survivor.
And now I wait alone. The anxiety ridden waiting game, where a single day feels like an eternity. Where minutes slow, allowing me time to reflect on it all. Too much time. Dragged out and filled with emotions - hope, fear, pride, guilt, sadness - they are all there.
What will my fate be?
A Survivor? Or The Survivor?
And can I be both?
We’ll find out.