January is an important month for me, but January 2016 is extra important. It marks my ten-year anniversary of being cancer-free. When I first entered remission in my senior year of high school, a few of my friends got me a little cake and threw me a remission party. But the real achievement was going to be surviving to the ten-year mark. Once you reach ten years cancer free, the odds of relapse are nearly gone.
And when you're seventeen, ten years sounds incredibly far away.
To be considered a cancer "survivor" you need to survive five years in remission. However, if you relapse in your fifth year, and even pass away in your sixth year, you're still considered a "cancer survivor" for the statistics we use on survival, death and relapse. Really, once you reach year ten, you are considered safe from your cancer (the cancer you were originally diagnosed with), and susceptible to all the other cancers equally, not including any other genetic predispositions. So now I'm just as likely to get breast cancer or brain cancer, as I am to getting Lymphoma again (my original cancer) if that's any comfort at all.
Cancer has been one of my greatest teachers. It has shaped so many pieces of me and influenced most of the directions I've taken. And despite cancer being this terrifying and horrific disease, I wouldn't take my experience with it away.
Cancer is a dirty word, and because of that, we give it a lot of power.
We're scared of cancer.
And we probably should be. Cancer rates are now 1 in 2. Pick three of your closest friends; statistically, two of you are going to get cancer in your lifetime. That's pretty wild.
HOW CANCER CHANGED ME
CURIOSITY: 11 years old
When I was 11, my dad passed away from skin cancer. It was one of the scariest experiences in my life. As he crept closer to death's door, I watched him erode physically and begin to lose his mind. He was diagnosed and pronounced dead within a year.
I have one specific memory of him that haunts me. One afternoon, after helping him bathe, I helped him walk back into his room and I sat him down on his bed. He was a huge man - extremely tall with a broad frame. He had a TV in the room since he spent so much time laying down, so I turned it on and left the room so he could get dressed.
Ten minutes later, I went back into the room to check on him.
He was laying on the bed watching TV, sprawled out... completely naked. I had seen him naked before - I had to help him bathe a couple times - but he was also mindful (and probably embarrassed) of his nakedness, and went to great lengths to shield himself from my eyes.
But there he was, laying naked, legs open wide, penis out, just watching TV. I immediately felt so mortified for walking in on him. I didn't really know what to do, but I had to give him his medication - and he would only take it from me. As he got sicker, he became quite mean to my mom, and as a family we had begun sending me in to make sure he took his medication.
He had a soft spot for me.
As he laid in his room, naked and watching TV, I went in and out of the room a couple times, but he never really noticed me. It's as if he couldn't see me there at all. Finally, exasperated, I gathered myself, crossed the room, and put his pills and a glass of milk on the nightstand next to him. He looked over at me, a little dazed, and then seemed to come to. He quickly realized he had no clothes on, and whirled himself onto his side, reaching for a blanket.
Now we were both mortified.
I remember sitting in my room after it all, wondering how he could just forget he was naked. How could your mind make you forget you didn't have any clothes on? What was he thinking? What was he feeling, knowing he was dying?
I remember really wanting to know how he felt.
INSECURITY: age 16 years old
A year later, by age 12 or so, I also had cancer.
Isn't that so fucked up?
We only found out I had cancer when I turned 16. I had a slow growing tumour that doctors presumed had been growing inside my chest around the time I started puberty. For years, I never knew I was sick.
But I have a theory: my dad died. I was devastated. My body did weird things on a biological level, and something inside me started to not grow right. When my dad passed away from cancer, I felt like I had to be the man of the house, and in my child's mind a man was strong and unemotional. My mom and sister cried so much. For years it felt like the entire house was crying. Crying was what my family did on autopilot. I used to sit in my room, listening to them howl, and little parts of me began to stiffen and harden.
I wasn't dealing with what I was feeling. And when we do that, I do believe it manifests into disease. Mine just manifested into cancer.
My dad's cancer and my cancer were completely unrelated.
I went through many rounds of chemo and radiation. I lost my hair, I lost many friends, I lost my confidence and I felt like I lost my existence. Adulthood - the teenage years - are such a fragile, influential time. And half of mine were spent dying.
I didn't look the same. I was putting on weight from all the steroids I was on, I had tubes hanging from my skin that disappeared inside my body, I developed bad rashes on my face where my wig rubbed and irritated my invisible hairline - and, of course, I was bald.
As a teenager, I had long black hair. Thick. Shiny. Good hair. My mom was a hair dresser, and having healthy, long luxurious hair was one of the most important things to me when I was young because I grew up in hair salons.
But I became completely hairless. No eyelashes or eyebrows, no pubic hair, not even faint little knuckle hairs or hair inside my nose. Everything fell out. And for me, that was really really hard. When my last "eyebrow hair" fell out onto the carpet - I bawled.
When my hair finally started to grow back in, it wasn't the same. It was fine and thin - grey - and uneven. I used to pull my little dinky bangs out from under my wig, and I'd pin them back with a bobbypin on top of my wig just so my hair looked more natural. But then I'd keep the hood up on my sweater because I was so self-conscious of it. So it didn't even matter anyway.
I went to highs chool parties here and there - fitting in feels terribly important when you're in high school - but I'd lose a drawn-on eyebrow from sweat or bumping into someone, or my wig would twist and itch. I hated going out.
I was a real mess. I ended up retreating, and while I may have been born an extrovert, this experience made me an introvert. It taught me to recharge from being alone. This shame, embarrassment and fear began altering some of the attributes that made me - me.
After remission, I had to get to know myself again.
I didn't feel the same. I was intensely insecure. I didn't know what I stood for. Saying I was "healthy" after remission felt like a joke. I had holes and scars all over my body, I was hairless and I was broken. I just wanted to go back to who I was.
ANGER: 19 years old
I had the hardest time in my early twenties. I went to college. Studied (distracted myself) hard. I had sex for the first time - much later than most of my friends - and I felt I couldn't really connect with men in an honest way. I was worried about my scars, I was worried about my hair (still short and weird) and I was still feeling extremely unattractive.
But instead of retreating, I was pissed that I had to feel this way. College was intense. The program I took was very stressful with strict deadlines, I was working seven - seven! - jobs. I wanted a 100 distractions so I didn't have to think about all the terrible things I had seen. All the dying - now dead - children I became friends with at the hospital; all the illness, fragility, evilness and injustice.
At that time, it wasn't common that a child survived cancer, because many children's cancer were very aggressive. Many of the kids I met succumbed to cancer or had multiple relapses. That "five year window" is crucial, and people I had treatment with weren't making it passed the window. With every new cancer diagnosis I heard of, I would become a tyrant behind closed doors. I would scream. I would break things. I would look at myself in the mirror and scream.
I was completely consumed with rage.
To be fair, ever since I can remember, I've always been a little... brash. But my youth had been hard! I had suffered! Wasn't I allowed a little bit of brashness from time to time?
But this brashness was next level. It was something else. And it trickled into other areas in my life. I was suddenly unable to handle any stress and I'd get violent. I once threw a vase down the stairs right at my sister's head. Thankfully she moved and it only put a hole through the wall.
My friends called these scary episodes my "rage blackouts", and boy, were they right.
I ended up playing rugby for one year to get some of my aggression out. It was GREAT. I was 5"7, about 140 pounds, and one hell of a tackler. We won the championship that year, and I got to level girls twice my size. I was a forward (tackler) and in the front row of the scrum. It was deeply satisfying for me.
In 2010, I decided to have a breast reduction. I had a HHH cup. Reducing some of the breast tissue made it easier to search for lumps (I was high risk because of having radiation to my chest), and would relieve some of the heaviness from such a large chest.
I woke up from the surgery... different. And I don't mean physically smaller.
Weird things started happening to me. Forgotten memories started to come back to me. A strange knowingness overtook my life, and I would be able to predict peoples reactions, ideas, even words. I would sense presences in the room with me, and I'd get bizarre messages in my dreams.
I found my cancer journals shortly after. I had written them while belligerent with chemo drugs, and up until then, I had no memory of writing them. Trauma will do that. But it turned out weird "presences" were visiting me then, too, five years before.
I was just too sick and weak to remember.
Leading up to my breast reduction, I was a very VERY intense atheist. It seems so hard to believe now! But I was. I was very anti-religion or anti anything regarding an afterlife. I scowled at any sort of healing therapy, and I was hyper judgmental of anyone who praised it.
SEARCHING: 23 years old
After a new found sense of spiritual connection post-surgery, I started to get really tired of being so angry. You know when you screw up, but you're like, "Naw, I'm still a good person,"?
I had lost that.
I started to question if I was a good person. Was I one of the bad people; angry, mean and malicious? Was I manipulative? Was I cruel? Was I cold?
When I'm long gone and reviewing the scrolls of my existence, this might be one of my most important phases of my life. I was alone a lot. I thought a lot. I felt a lot. I moved out by myself, in an apartment I loved, just me and Rogue, my dog. I had this big wall that I DIY'd with chalkboard paint, and I used to write all kinds of crazy things on it - chemistry formulas, prism/crystal shapes, famous quotes from Da Vinci and Tesla, juice recipes, notes of research on a cancer project I was working on, different supposed alien races, what the TSX was doing and which funds were up or down, who was diagnosed with cancer from my home town... It was all very difficult to explain when someone came over - like Derek, who I started to date during that time.
But it was also the first time I felt independent and like I wasn't sick. For the first time, I didn't need someone to feed me, or bathe me, or take me to treatment, or just take care of me like the child I had always felt I was. I could finally take care of myself. I felt free.
And I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn about ideas that were bigger than the mundane, practical things I was learning in regular life.
This is when I really started to write. I was educated in writing post-college, but this was when I would find my voice. Writing was a tool to deal with the chaos in my real world, by creating artificial worlds I could escape to.
I met cool friends who were interested in the same complex strangeness I was, and we'd meet at a local place late at night and talk about spirituality, crystals, spirits, reiki, pain and every other weird thing I had discovered in some book or documentary. We talked about energy, science, botany, aliens, angels, death and love. These people were intensely intelligent, worldly, young, and I have no idea how I accidentally discovered them. I silently asked for them, I suppose, and the universe sent them to me. And believe me, they are earth angels.
At this time, I became the best version of myself. I was becoming comfortable in my vulnerability, I was finding my voice, and I was finding something to believe in. Every time I thought of something negative, I forced myself to counter it with something positive.
And it worked.
RE-LEARNING: 25 years old
I was good at 25. You know? I felt good. I had fun. I was optimistic. I was also in love. I was comfortable in my beliefs. I identified as a "spiritual" person, and I was in a relationship with someone who cared about me, and was also supportive of all the weird things I liked to research. He showed me it was important to be present and not dwell on what has happened to me.
So I would do just that, even if I had become someone who felt comfortable brooding and feeling morose from time to time.
I became a full-time writer. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life because I left the corporate world, and the safety net that comes with that. I went through a grieving process because quitting meant I had to leave some clients behind that I really cared for. But I was supported at home with my boyfriend, and I was hardworking. I hustled. I could make it work.
And then I got pregnant.
Wow. What the fuck, Universe. CURVEBALL.
I was never supposed to get pregnant. I had radiation to my ovaries during my cancer treatment, and I was told that reproducing would be a challenge. So you can imagine my surprise when a tarot card reader - of all things! - told me I was pregnant, and the pregnancy test I took an hour later confirmed it. Wow, wow, wow.
Shortly after, I started Rogue Wood.
CANCER HAS TAUGHT ME PRESSURE
Above anything else, cancer has shown me the clock of life. It has shown me how short it can really be and how important it is to experience as much as possible. This "battle against the clock" feeling, is a common sensation among lightworkers. I do everything at 110% because what if I can't do it tomorrow? I can still be intense, even if I do know better. This is why Derek and I remind each other that we moved to the country to live slower. We are now teaching another human - our son - how to experience this thing we call human existence, so what type of examples do we want to be?
CANCER HAS MADE ME SELFISH
I crave knowledge. I love to learn. I love to research and discover. I need time to write. If I don't get these things, I'm upset. I brood. I pout. I get mean.
I know these things only benefit me, but I need them. I'm not experiencing life the way my spirit needs to be without them. As a parent and a partner, sometimes it can be hard to accommodate these things, but as soon as I get too busy to accommodate them, I get upset and cranky, and I know I just need some time for me.
If I don't focus on myself, I know I'll get sick again, and then I'll need my own kids to take care of me. And you know what? I've lived through that and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
CANCER HAS MADE ME SCARED
We all think we're invincible, don't we? Bad things will happen to the neighbour, or a friend of a friend - never us. I won't get cancer - that only happens in movies. Until it does happen to us.
Cancer has shown me death, and it's fucking scary. It's terrifying because we don't understand it. I used to sit alone in a hospital room, having chemo at midnight, making trips to the toilet to vomit while still having wires and tubes attached to me and attached to the wall. I used to hallucinate that shadows and bats were coming out of the corners of my walls, and that a huge hooded monster was coming for my body. I remember feeling so alone I could puke; like my insides were melting; like my bones were turning to dust - hoping for death, but petrified of it at the same time.
It's why I want to learn everything, especially regarding spirituality. Cancer has shown me death's terrifying face and then gave me a chance to run away from it. It's not a face that is easily forgotten. It's a face that haunts your dreams.
CANCER HAS TURNED ME INTO A BETTER PERSON
Meaner? Maybe. Harder to impress? Definitely. Tougher on those I care about? Absolutely. But it's made me softer.
Cancer has made me more thoughtful. More pensive. It has made me more motivated and more driven. More curious. More intelligent. Stronger. Wilder. It has made me angrier - but more passionate. It may have made me more pessimistic, but it made me braver, too.
Cancer has become a pillar on which I have built who I am. It made me harder on the outside, but softer on the inside. Louder, but quiet. Fierce, but compassionate.
I am thankful that I was someone who got to experience cancer, because it taught me that I have so much more potential than just what my hair looks like or who I'm friends with. I have thoughts, ideas and hope, and I don't think there is anything else in the world that matters more.