There are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States and we all have challenges in common.
On Sunday, I was having coffee with a friend who is being treated for cancer, and heard a voice behind me.
“I’m a five-year breast cancer survivor,” the stranger said. That is long enough to be considered cured or in remission. “I was listening to your conversation and at first I wondered if you were talking about your parents. You both look so young.”
We introduced ourselves: My friend is a man in his 20s who anticipates completing treatment in September, and I am a woman in her 30s who is adjusting to life after breast cancer treatment and an upcoming surgery to prevent ovarian cancer. The stranger was a Brazilian entrepreneur in her 40s.
Cancer affects us all differently. It exacerbates body issues, mental health and addictions.
The newcomer was a tough, self-made millionaire before she was diagnosed. And it was clear that the experience, although difficult, didn’t knock her down. She told us her rib was fractured because of radiation and her skin became so severely damaged that she was unable to have reconstruction of her right breast.
“I go topless when I go on the boat. I don’t care,” she said, while revealing a scar where once there had been a small breast. “I want to take it off,” she said about her left breast.
“It would look even and I would be OK with it, but my husband doesn’t want me to.”
For some of us, it’s difficult to plan for the future. The challenge is known among psychologists as the “Damocles syndrome,” named after the Greek Damocles, who realized that it was difficult to live with a sword dangling over him, in the same way that survivors have to face the possibility of a cancer recurrence.
To some survivors, cancer is an inconvenience that can be handled with calmness. To me, cancer is fear. Fear of seeing my mom in pain, of not being able to have children and of being deformed. It is the terror of becoming like one of the brain cancer patients I saw at the treatment center — unable to walk or take care of themselves.
Cancer survivorship comes at a psychological and emotional price. The woman, who was no longer a stranger, said she could tell that I needed to wake up.
“You are not the cancer,” she said. “The cancer just happened to you. It is not who you are.” As she hugged me goodbye, my eyes teared up and she repeated “Wake up!”