This month is an important one for me. And not every January, but specifically January 2016. It marks my ten-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Ten years ago, in my senior year of high school, a few of my friends got me a little cake and threw me a remission party. It wasn't anything ostentatious, but it was significant. However, the real achievement was going to be getting to the ten-year mark, marking me out of the woods with cancer. And when you're seventeen, ten years sounds incredibly far away.
To be considered a cancer "survivor" you need to survive five years after being 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, which seems a little flawed to me. Really, once you reach year ten, you are considered safe from your cancer (the cancer you were diagnosed with), and susceptible to all the other cancers out there equally, not including any other genetic predispositions. So now I'm just as likely to get breast cancer as I am to get brain cancer, if that's any comfort at all.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM CANCER
Cancer has been one of my greatest teachers. And despite what the general consensus is about cancer, I wouldn't take my experience with the disease away. I worry people will grow tired of me talking about it, but I find there just aren't enough young people who actually are talking about cancer. Cancer is a dirty word, and because of that, we give it a lot of power. We're scared of cancer. And as long as we keep being diagnosed, I will keep exploring, keep sharing, and keep marching.
Technically, I was sick around the age of 12 or so, but we didn't know. My theory is simple: My father died (he too, had cancer); I was devastated; my body did weird things on a biological level. You have to understand, when he 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. So while my mom and sister were face down and sobbing into a pillow, I was building my resolve by not dealing with that I was feeling. We only found the tumour in my chest when I was 16, to which I went through many rounds of chemo and radiation. I lost my hair, I lost many friends, I lost my confidence and I lost my existence. After remission, I had to get to know myself again. I didn't look the same. I didn't feel the same. I was intensely insecure. I didn't know what I stood for. Saying I was "healthy" felt like a joke. I had holes and scars all over my body, I had gained weight from steroids, I was hairless and I was broken. I just wanted to go back to who I was.
As a teenager, I had long black hair. Thick. Shiny. My mom was a hair dresser, and having healthy, long luxurious hair was one of the most important things to me as a naive sixteen-year-old. When my hair grew back in, 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 so it didn't even matter anyway.
I went to parties here and there, but I'd lose a drawn-on eyebrow from sweat or bumping into someone, or my wig would twist and itch. Ugh, I was such a mess. And my eyebrows grew in so messy and weird. 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. I honestly have no idea who I would have become had I not experienced this shame, embarrassment and fear.
I learned that image means nothing. As a young person, I counted on my appearance to get me things. I hoped having boobs early meant that I looked older, or that my long hair and abs some how lured in some guy to have a crush on me. I had good grades, but I didn't try my hardest and I know I could have done better, but it felt more important to have friends and connections. Who would that person have become? I didn't have drive yet. And my drive and ambition are arguably what define me as an adult.
I never really felt like I was in "remission" once they gave me the ticket, and I was worried everything meant I would have cancer again. Like, an itchy foot (this was my main symptom... so weird) or random bouts of fainting. Or catching a cold while I was just rebuilding a broken immune system. So I needed something to distract me from the paranoia and insecurity. I was so ugly. I was lonely. I didn't have anything that I had built my early life on anymore. So I went to college.
For some reason, I had the hardest time in my early twenties. It was when I first had sex - 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, but I had extensions... my natural hair came in seriously thin and baby fine) and I was still feeling unattractive. But instead of retreating, I was pissed that I had to feel this way. College was hard; intense.The program was very stressful with strict deadlines, I was working seven - seven! - jobs. Was I trying to distract myself? Probably. I would learn about the deaths of some of the kids I had met at CancerCare, the place I had treatment. It wasn't common that a kid walked away from cancer, many of them succumbing to the disease or having 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.
But only if I was alone.
I've always been a little... brash. But this 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, but needless to say I had to move out of her house. And my sister is the kindest person! I would get so mad that I would shake and actually forget some of the things I would do. My friends called it my rage blackouts, and they couldn't be more right.
I ended up playing rugby. I was 5"7, about 150 pounds, and one hell of a tackler. It was scary. We won the championship that year. Disclaimer: I did not play in the winning game because I got knocked unconscious in a previous tournament because I was a reckless idiot who would tackle anyone, even a player more advanced, smarter and stronger than me, which equals "You're Going To Get Tackled So Hard That You Will Be An Unconscious Puddle On The Ground Snoring." Thanks to my medical history, my coach said I needed a doctor's note to play again. Of course I couldn't get a doctor's note because with my heart condition as a side effect from cancer treatment there was no way I should have been playing in the first place. My coach didn't know.
In 2010, I had a breast reduction and was put under. 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. And then I found my cancer journals. The ones that were written while belligerent with drugs, and the ones I have no memory of writing. Trauma will do that. Turns out weird "presences" were visiting me then, too, five years before. I was just too sick and weak to remember.
As a side note, this version of me did not believe in anything. I was an atheist, scowled at any sort of therapy, and hyper judgmental. I had a religious boyfriend that I used to question and make fun of, and I'd judge my friends who saw counsellors. So, I'm sorry if you met me during this part of my life.
I got 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 even was a good person. No, I wasn't a big drinker, or partier. I didn't do drugs or have reckless sex, but I had terrible, mean, menacing thoughts. I didn't see the good in anyone. I'd pass someone on the street, a complete stranger, and I'd curse them in my head. For no reason at all! It was so hard living in my head with me. 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. If I could summarize this section with a title page, it would be me alone on my bed surrounded by piles of books in some frumpy sweater... with Rogue, my dog. (Dogs heal everything) I moved out alone, in an apartment I loved, just me and Rogue. 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 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 also very difficult to explain the madness when someone came over (like Derek, who I started to date (Actually, I dated a lot in this phase but I rarely let them come into my little kingdom)).
I was in a very different line of work, finance, and only writing on the side back then. Writing was a tool to deal with the chaos in my real world, by creating artificial worlds I could escape to. I didn't really think it could be a way of life, I just thought I had gotten lucky with a couple stories and a couple poems. Besides, I wasn't a good writer. I had won a couple writing/speaking competitions in high school, but high school was about friendship, not skill or talent. And I went to college for writing only because a teacher told me I should. I hadn't really thought about it, I only thought about cancer.
So I would get dressed up, see my financial clients all day, and then retire at home with a beer/wine or green juice, alone with my books and hipster music playing from my PS3, clad in oversized thrifted clothes. I would write about what I learned. I'd meet my friends 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. These people were intensely intelligent, worldly, young!, and I have no idea how I discovered them. I asked for them, and the universe sent them to me. They are angels. They were curious about the same things I was, and we each seemed to be extra curious in a specific area of weirdness, that benefited each other. They also liked to be alone, too, and they each had weird gifts like I did. Strange presences visited them, as well.
Honestly, I was probably the best version of myself. I was becoming comfortable in my vulnerability, 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.
My mid-twenties held a lot of inner conflict because I learned how to have fun again. This was my phase of "not caring" about much. I was comfortable in my beliefs, identifying as a "spiritual" person, and I was in a relationship with someone who cared about me, and was supportive about all the weird things I liked to research. He was also spiritual in his gentle way. He showed me it was important to be present and not dwell on what has happened. So I would do just that, but ugly memories and old thought patterns can rear their ugly heads, especially if you are prone to morose moments of brooding when something triggers you. No matter how happy you train yourself to be, sometimes you're just upset, especially if you've seen things that are worth getting upset about. And I think that's OK.
Being "OK" also meant having fun with drinking and food, and the not-so-fun weight gain. But I was young! I was in love! But part of my shadow side warned me that I attracted this love when I was at my best; when I was healthy, thoughtful, curious, motivated and driven. Did I really want to fall away from all that for the sake of "fun"? Honestly, no. I'm too hungry, research-savvy and curious to spend too much time in mindless fun. Which is fitting, because 2016 is a serious year, meant to press our noses to the ground.
After immense deliberating, I left my job in finance, a job I had for over five years, and became a full-time writer. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Taking care of all my financial clients gave me a sort of peace, and it quelled my rage. Once I left that job, my anger issues did strangely return because I had no more outlet to cancel them out. So while I felt like I took a mental and spiritual step forward, I also felt like I took an emotional step back. But in truth, with that job, I couldn't take care of myself. I took care of everyone else. My clients.
When I left, I felt like I was breaking up with 500 people, and I lost a lot of sleep over it. And I still very much believe in the work I was doing but... something in me changed. The Universe had another plan for me. Somewhere along the way, I stepped onto another path and I needed to just go with it. A great love. A new career. A lifestyle change. And...
Oh yeah. Motherhood.
Against all odds, I got pregnant. Having had my ovaries radiated during treatment, I was told that reproducing wasn't impossible, but it would be a challenge. And in all honesty, motherhood hasn't changed me, it has just sharpened who I knew I was. Things may have become blurred as I moved away from cancer, but sometimes we need to wander around in the dark for bit. Sometimes we need to collect all these strange life lessons because they lead to something bigger and more important. Relationships and the people we meet are meant for specific things and maybe even for only specific times in our lives. I feel like a lot of people I know succumb to motherhood. Like motherhood takes over and they are opened up to this whole new world where previous ideas just don't matter anymore. But I feel like all my old ideas matter again, and that I'm being reminded that, "Oh yeah! I used to think this way and that was important to me!" (I mostly just can't believe I survived labour.)
Age 27 put the fun to bed. Fun is great, but there is more to life than just having fun. I had a baby, and that baby reminded me that I have ideas I deem important. I can have fun, but fun doesn't govern my life. And that's OK.
I feel like I've lived ten lives after cancer. Everything has been fast, intense. Live hard. Live passionately in case there is no tomorrow. Have a cause. Believe in the cause. Be the cause. Don't do it if you don't love it. Learn everything you can.
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. And sometimes that lesson has been at the expense of myself, and my own health. I do everything at 110% because what if I can't do it tomorrow? I know that isn't a way to live, I am self-aware enough to understand that, but it doesn't shut off the urgency. This is why Derek and I remind each other that we moved to the country to live slower. We are now teaching another human how to experience this 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, these things that I want that benefit only me, I'm dissatisfied. I'm upset. I brood. I'm not experiencing life the way my spirit needs to be. I come first. And yes, I'm a parent. My life is my life and my children's lives are their lives. I wouldn't do anything that wasn't in their best interest, but I'm not about to sacrifice everything in my existence because I think it will benefit them. It won't. Hurting me, hurts them. If I thrive, they thrive, or at the very least, they will see what thriving looks like and aspire to the same thing. Because I can't take care of them if I can't take care of myself. If I have cancer and am unhealthy, they will become the parent, and I will become the child. I've lived through that and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
CANCER HAS MADE ME SCARED
Young people think nothing will happen to them. They think they're invincible. Everything bad will happen to the neighbour; not them. Young people can't even wrap their minds around death. We think we will never die. Logically, we know we will, but somehow we think it won't happen. Or it's too "far away" to matter. Cancer has shown me death, and it's fucking scary. Death is a terrifying thing 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, that a huge hooded monster was coming for my body. I used to dwell in my aloneness, feeling like puking, like my insides were melting, like my bones were shattering, hoping for death, but still deathly afraid of it. 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? For sure. Tougher on those I care about? Absolutely. But cancer has made me more thoughtful. More pensive. It has made me more motivated and 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. It has become a pillar on which I have built who I am, and if I pull that pillar away, I will be off balance and fall. But it can't be taken away, because it is cemented into my being. It made me harder. But softer. Louder, but quiet. 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 appearances, friends and connections. I have thoughts, ideas and hope, and I don't think there is anything else in the world that matters more.
Photos by Ally Papko Photography and Design