I am a member of an extraordinary group of people—cancer survivors, specifically breast cancer survivors.
We do great things. We laugh at our foibles and at our ridiculous scars or perky breasts, many of us have written inspirational books or live amazing lives, we run, we pilot dragon boats and we learn how to fly fish. And, when someone calls us to tearfully tell us that they have been diagnosed, we pull them along into the club, we inspire, we cheer, we cry, we cook and we sit for hours as the chemo drips into our friend’s arms even as we push away at the fear and anxiety that being in the presence of our treatment causes.
For me, my life is joyful, authentic and full of love and appreciation; it’s extraordinary. While I wish I never had cancer, I love the life that I have and I think I would not have gotten here without it so in some ways I am grateful for the journey.
Yet today and probably some days to come, I am sad.
August is the month of Mary’s, my friend’s, birthday. Mary would have been 52 this year, but 14 years ago breast cancer took her away from those of us who loved her, including two small children. I miss her being in this world.
On Saturday, I got an email that another friend had passed away after a long fight with metastatic breast cancer. She was the person I went to when I was first diagnosed and asked her about her journey two years earlier. At the time, she was my person—the one who had gone through cancer and was now on the other side of the journey, but then, sadly, it came back.
I know too many women living with metastatic disease. For them, the pink ribbons, the talk about prevention, the tremendous amount of money spent on early stage disease and the lack of attention paid to metastatic disease is painful and even insulting. They demand, and rightly so, for their voices to be heard, for their disease to be funded.
A study has just come out that one in five people diagnosed with cancer are already cancer survivors. Because I had cancer before, not only am I more likely to have breast cancer again but I am more likely to have some other type of cancer. As my oncologist explained, my body now knows how to grow cancer cells and that is not a great thing.
I mourn my lost friends. I am troubled by the organizations claiming to be cancer charities that are fraudulent. I worry about my friends with metastatic disease. I worry that my family members might be more prone to the disease. I celebrate that the only other member of my family who had breast cancer is now 99.
Even as I am sad for others, I am happy for myself.
I will go to my friend’s funeral in a couple of days and people will carefully ask how I am, their eyes will contain fear and I will smile brightly and reassure them that I am still fine and very healthy and, in fact, running a half marathon in October. And, the small part of me that knows my body knows how to grow cancer cells will be there as well—silent but present.
I will continue to be grateful, to celebrate every day, to do all of the things that I know to do to stay healthy. Yet, today, I am sad that cancer keeps winning for so many people.
I want to find meaning, a call to action in all of this. I know it’s important to be kind, to be grateful, to be extraordinary. And maybe, most of all it’s important to love others because we never know how long we will have the gift of their presence. Or maybe, it’s important to fight tooth and nail for money to find a cure for cancer.
In an early Grey’s anatomy episode, Ellis Grey tells her daughter Meredith to be extraordinary. She clearly wants Meredith to forsake love, children and anything else that might interfere with becoming an amazing surgeon. I think Ellis’ definition of extraordinary is just wrong and, the show makes it very clear that this is exactly the conclusion they wanted me to draw.
I was lucky to have parents who wanted me to be extraordinary by being happy, by traveling, by finding my way in this world, by finding love.
We are all complex, fragile, awesome and real. Many of us have days where we feel like we can accomplish great things and other days where we just muddle through.
We can be amazing and awesome and happy and authentic and still have sad days, still mourn lost friends and loved ones, still have days where we would rather sit on the sofa and read than go out and take on the world.
Being human makes you more extraordinary, not less. Connecting with other people over some of the most mundane or ordinary things can be an extraordinary experience.
Here’s the thing though about being extraordinary. It doesn’t matter what I think for you and it doesn’t matter what you think for me. For some people I am an ordinary person living an ordinary life and to others I am living “the life of Reilly.” It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that, for me, my life is extraordinary. Because of that, because I have the amazing opportunity to live my authentic life as I choose to live it, I think I can be a better wife, daughter, sister, friend and person. It’s an extraordinary life because I say it is.
What do you say about your life? What is it for you in this moment that could be extraordinary? Maybe it’s a fabulous night’s sleep or having enough money to feed your family. Maybe it’s getting through a rough day or maybe it’s finding a cure for cancer. It’s your life and your choice.
Author: Wendy Kuhn
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Bill Strain/Flickr