I'm not your typical cancer survivor. Course, I don't really know what "typical" means in this case. After all, I feel like I've only been "a survivor" for a few months, even though I was diagnosed with breast cancer well over three years ago.
I suppose my survivorship started when I quit taking my last cancer drug against my doctor's wishes. I don't really understand the whole cancer-versary thing anyhow. Some people actually celebrate the day they got diagnosed. A mother of a cancer survivor I know told me, "Oh we just celebrated M's four-year anniversary of when he was diagnosed this week." Why would I want to celebrate the worst day of my life so far every year for the rest of my life?! And why would my parents want to?
I'm pretty sure my dad couldn't tell you the exact date I was diagnosed and I certainly don't want him to. I'm content with him remembering my birthday and don't much care if my mother has to remind him to buy me a birthday card.
Other people celebrate their last day of chemo. That makes just as little sense to me as diagnosis day. The last round of chemo is supposed to be the worst since chemo is a cumulative thing, so why would I want to remind myself of the worst I ever felt? Hmmm.
I suppose I could celebrate the day I learned I didn't have to have any more chemo, but that was only because I put two oncologists on the phone together who collectively decided it was actually more risky for me to continue chemo than to stop treatment early. Cancer was no longer an immediate threat to my life. Cancer treatment, however, apparently was.
When it comes right down to it, I hate the word survivor. All I can think of when I hear that word is suffering. I think of the worst kind of suffering, too, because my first association with the word survivor was the Holocaust. Don't get me wrong, I did survive something. Cancer treatment is the worst kind of awful -- a living sort of hell, if you must know -- I've experienced in my young life. But it's not the Holocaust. I signed up for the barbaric, inhumane treatment I received. I agreed to it. And I was even surrounded by medications and people to help me get through it.
I had a nurse come to my home to hydrate me. My parents flew across country to be with me. I was prescribed pill after pill after pill for the 31 different side effects I was experiencing. Yes, I made a list and counted. I was granted a medical marijuana license for nausea, insomnia and to increase my appetite. I wasn't left to die from starvation or dehydration. Or worse.
I'm not your typical survivor.
I was never supposed to get cancer. What lean, vegetarian, non-drinker at 31-years-old with barely any breast tissue who never ate fast or processed food gets breast cancer? Apparently me.
Aren't you supposed to radically change your life when you get news like that? Become a vegan and travel the world in "Eat, Pray, Love"-style to find inner peace and happiness? Or at least start having lots of amazing sex?
Well, the exact opposite happened to me.
For starters, I hadn't eaten meat since I was 15 years old and hadn't eaten red meat since I was probably 10. I started eating a bit of chicken the year before the big C, but hated the texture. I always hated the texture of meat, as a child and as an adult. I loved raw fish and eggs, but was severely lactose intolerant, which I think made me some kind of ovalactarian or something else that felt ridiculous to say, so I said I was vegetarian for non-animal rights reasons. Probably makes me the worst kind, since I wasn't even doing it for the animals.
During my second round of chemo, my mother made a pot of sauce and meatballs. The meatballs were supposed to be for my boyfriend at the time, but my mouth started salivating when they came out of the oven. I hadn't wanted real food since round one ended when all I craved was McDonald's French fries and their sweet tea. God, I remember that first sip of tea. Three layers of my tongue had burned off from the chemo and my baby taste buds never tasted anything so pure and wonderful in their very young life.
My mother was stunned when I asked for a meatball. It was like I was pregnant or something, the way I was craving them. First I had one, then another. By meatball 13, I thought she was going to have a heart attack right then and there. It had been at least 20 years since I had beef, and there I was eating 13 meatballs after a round of chemo.
It didn't stop there. My neighbor Ken grilled steaks for my parents one night and I almost devoured the raw meat as it touched the hot surface and sizzled. My mouth watered as a wild dog's mouth waters just before it's about to eat its prey. I wanted my steak rare, the blood dripping as I sliced into it. My mother's eyeballs were almost popping out of her head.
And now I am a carnivore.
I can't believe how many years I went without bacon. Who was the first person to slaughter pig and fry it? Brilliant human being, that person, and if there is a heaven, I will shake his hand. And eat bacon every day for the rest of my eternal life, even the kind with nitrates. Yup, I even eat nitrates now, which infuriates my celebrity nutritionist friend Rachel.
I am so not your typical cancer survivor.
After my liver survived chemo, I loosened up about drinking alcohol too. I used to be so uptight about how much I drank and the frequency with which I drank. I hardly ever drank during the week for fear it would affect the quality of my work. Sure, I spent the first year or two after chemo ended trying to cleanse my system of its toxicity. And the truth is, half a glass of wine while I was on that second cancer drug would make me so depressed the next day, I couldn't get out of bed. But I stopped taking that second drug and when I stopped taking the third drug, my taste buds really changed. The first sip of wine when I could really taste again was the most decadent, amazing experience I've ever had, like the most intoxicating first kiss ever, except slightly better. I wanted to bottle up that moment and savor it for the rest of my life.
I've been chasing that moment every day ever since, which means I kinda drink like a fish. Even though somebody did a study that said more than four ounces of alcohol PER WEEK would double my risk of getting cancer again. Four ounces is like the biggest tease in the world. If you come to appreciate the sweet taste of a brilliant pinot, how could you possibly stop at just four ounces a week? That's absurd, and I'm sure someone will come up with another study that proves I'm right and it is absurd. I'm holding out for that second study.
Oh, and then there's the drugs. I hated taking medication for anything. I wouldn't take Tylenol even and only resorted to digesting painkillers when my monthly cramps got so bad I couldn't function at work. I was Ms. Homeopathic and had a natural remedy for everything.
Everything except cancer of course.
I had medications to deal with the side effects of medications. I was on so many drugs, I felt like I was 87 years old and needed a full-time nurse without chemo- or menopause-brain to manage it for me. So, now I eat a small bite of a pot cookie each night to fall asleep. And I don't even feel guilty about it. I never did drugs before. Never. I was that girl who pretended to try and smoke pot a small handful of times and never really inhaled. No, seriously, I never inhaled.
Now, I eat a bit of pot cookie each night before bed. And sleep like a rock. My super, super conservative mother even knows about it. I'm sure she'd rather me take some crazy pharmaceutical drug that is legal everywhere, but she won't confront me on it. I'm her yippie cancer-surviving daughter. Oh yeah, yippie, that's a word I made up when I moved to Boulder, Colo., to describe a yuppy that is also a hippie. Yippie.
Just yesterday I said no to someone too. You have to understand, I was so much of a people pleaser, a personal coach of mine tried to get me to say no to every single request for a week. I lasted one no. There are still people I work really hard to please, like my dad, but he's earned it and it makes me feel really good to do something that pleases him. I was supposed to volunteer with a woman who is a real B-I-T-C-H, so I said no, I'm not doing it, and I walked out. I felt really bad about it too because I never quit stuff I'm committed to and I really, really love the organization I was volunteering for. But in the past, I would've stuck it out to my own detriment and I just don't have it in me to do that anymore. So, I said no and learned what it feels like to feel bad and good in the same moment about saying no.
I know a lot of cancer survivors and some of them are actually vegans now, and some even found inner happiness and tranquility. I celebrate their cancer-versary whatever day they want. I usually have a glass of wine in my hand, order a steak for dinner and talk about when I might implant my embryos.
Oh that's the date I do celebrate: March 23. The day I created my embryos and knew I'd get the chance to live the life I always imagined living despite my cancer diagnosis...a life as a yippie mom, who hopefully has lots of amazing sex.
Alice Crisci is a young-adult cancer advocate and founder of Fertile Action, a non-profit that helps women becomes mothers after surviving cancer. To read more about her journey to preserve her fertility, visit Sperm Shopping From a Catalog.
I'm not your typical cancer survivor. Course, I don't really know what "typical" means in this case.