One year ago, I received the best phone call of my entire life. My oncologist called with the test results I’d been waiting for. I was sitting in my best friend’s apartment, checking my phone incessantly to make sure I didn’t miss the call. When Dr. G called and told me my full body scan had come back clear and I was cancer-free, I immediately started sobbing. It wasn’t cute actress sobbing either but full-on, ugly face, runny nose sobbing.
In that moment, I felt like the weight of my diagnosis and treatment finally hit me. Because I was healthy again, I could feel the true crushing weight of what had happened to me. I think our minds protect us in that way. While I was going through cancer treatment, I couldn’t full grasp the reality of what was happening – and I’m grateful for that, because I think I would’ve lost my mind. But, a year ago, when I finally knew it was over, I just dissolved. I called my mom and choked through my crying.
“Mom, he called, everything is fine.”
My mom laughed and smiled and hung up quickly so I could call my dad. I called my dad and repeated the news.
“Everything is fine. Dr. G. said everything is fine,” I said.
My dad laughed into the phone. “I knew it would be,” he said.
Here’s a moment of appreciation for my dad: if he were ever worried it wouldn’t be fine, he never let me know. Through my diagnosis and treatment and recovery, he maintained that cancer was “a small bump” on the road of my life. With every test and every check-up, he maintained his optimism. And I needed that. I really needed it.
And now it’s been a year. In December, I had my first 6-month check-up and I’m due for my second one this month. I’ll have to do check-ups for the rest of my life but it’s a small price to pay. I’ll have a jagged white scar etched into my neck for the rest of my life but it’s a small price to pay. Everything is small once you have your health back.
In the year since I found out I was cancer-free, my life has changed dramatically. Last spring, I was accepted to my dream graduate school program – but I was still in cancer treatment and wasn’t sure if I would become well enough in time to go. It was the strangest waiting game. I looked for potential roommates, researched my new school and signed up for classes, all while wondering if my scan would come back positive for cancer and I’d have to scrap all my plans. I waited and prayed that I would be healthy soon, that I would be able to take part in the life I was desperately trying to set up for myself.
Then I found out I was cancer-free. And I cried and I screamed and every anxiety and fear I had been harboring in my heart poured out of me. Because it was over, I could really feel what it had done to me.
The day after I got that call from Dr. G., my best friend Kelly and I drove up to the city where I would attend graduate school in the fall. Finally, it was official and I could look forward to the future with the same happy abandon as most other 23-year-olds. Kelly and I stayed in a hotel and watched stupid TV shows and then the next day, we met the girl who would become my roommate and close friend. We drove back home and turned the music up loud. It sounds cliche, but the color seemed to return to the world that day. I mean, look at me. Just a few months before, I’d been laying in bed, quarantined for a week to undergo radiation treatment, and now I was signing a lease on a new house in a new city and taking a road trip with my best friend. I felt so profoundly lucky. I still do.
That’s not to say that everything has been peachy in the last year. In December, when it was time for my first 6-month check-up, I had a terrible panic attack and called my mother crying. I was terrified that the doctors would find something, that the cancer would be back, that I would have to leave the new life I had come to love. Last week, I had a persistent sore throat and convinced myself it was a sign that I had cancer again. Again, I called my mom crying (sorry, Mom – you’re the best!) then called my boyfriend crying then called my dad crying.
I’m trying to show grace toward myself in these moments because my life has changed forever from what it was before. And now, sometimes I get a common cold and the trauma of what happened to me rears its ugly head. And sometimes I smell antiseptic and remember the hospital visits and have to sit down and collect myself. And sometimes I catch a glimpse of the scar across my neck in the mirror and remember it all over again. And sometimes I see pictures of myself before and marvel at the smooth skin on my neck, and what was really happening underneath it, and how I had no idea at all.
There’s trauma here, of course, but there can be grace, too. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year. I’ve learned to be patient with myself and my healing. I’ve learned that my body heals faster than my mind. I’ve learned that I’m forever changed from the girl I was before, who didn’t know how wrong things could go in her own body. I’ve learned that some people don’t know how to handle it when their 23-year-old friend gets sick. I’ve learned that I don’t have to forgive them, but I can. I’ve learned that health is sacred and powerful and without it, every other issue pales. I’ve learned that the world will challenge me in ways I never thought were possible and that I will be strong because I have to. I’ve learned that awful things can happen and I can live through them. I’ve learned that I will always carry this thing with me, but that the weight will be different day to day. I’ve learned that some days, I’ll need help carrying it and other days, I’ll forget it’s with me at all.
It’s been a year since I found out I didn’t have cancer anymore. And in that year, there have been beautiful days and anxious days and everything in between. Right now, I’m just feeling lucky that I get to live them.