Is it possible to experience survivor’s guilt before even going under the knife? If so, that’s what I’m dealing with at the moment. I tried explaining this feeling to my friend Diane on Friday evening. A few years ago, Diane developed a tumor in her chest that began to push on her lungs. Months of surgery, chemotherapy and hair loss ensued, and I am proud to say that my pal is awhile past the coveted five-year remission milestone. Diane is a singer/songwriter, artist, writer, and all around beautiful and fabulous woman. The world needs her.
Two years ago, I lost one of my best friends, Jesika, to a lightening quick 17-day battle with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, At the time, 30 year-old Jes was a lawyer, recent Chicago transplant, and impending bride-to-be. She was just beginning the best parts of her life, and her fast demise remains an epic tragedy for many who loved her.
I have Stage 2 cervical cancer. But big deal. I am having surgery this coming Tuesday morning, and there is every reason to believe that I will be absolutely fine afterward – no additional radiation, procedures or body-wracking chemo required. I will immediately move from patient to recovery in the span of two hours.
Except for the occasional bouts of depression which are only tangentially related to living with the disease, and far more associated with feelings of confusion and loss stemming from my impending divorce, I feel absolutely fine. And somehow, for lack of a better word, that just seems….wrong.
Last Sunday I rode 30 miles in Chicago’s annual Bike the Drive event along Lake Shore Drive. My conception of people battling cancer doesn’t allow for that picture of vitality. I have lost a few pounds recently, but again, that is to be blamed on poor eating habits and grief, rather than debilitating sickness. I am able to work, to write, to meet friends for drinks and attend family events. I am not flat on my back, shrunken and surrounded by pill bottles, as I recall of my grandmother June when she succumbed to ovarian cancer herself back in 1991.
Today happens to be National Cancer Survivor’s Day, a time of reflection and deserved celebration for those who have conquered the disease in its myriad forms. It is also a day to recognize the family, friends and partners who stood by each of these brave people and ushered them out the other side. I cannot count myself as one of the survivors yet, but even after I am released from the hospital on Tuesday, I’m not sure I have the right to join the party.
There are those in my corner who bolster me with accolades about my strength and fortitude. But I don’t feel either of those things. In fact I have been rather, weak, scared and anti-social, far more wounded and fear-stricken by the idea of spending the rest of my life alone, rather than afraid of not having a life at all. Does this sound like the average cancer patient?
Like so many other social groups: wives, mothers, workers and now battlers of the Big C, I feel oddly anachronistic. It’s another area of our cultural fabric where I feel somewhat alienated, meeting the criteria and yet not quite what is expected. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I wish I were sicker. I have enough other problems to wrestle. I just don’t know my place.