I opened the orange medicine bottle one last time, taking out two familiar chalky white pills. Although I never did, apparently I was "supposed" to wear latex gloves when handling these chemotherapy pills. Because heaven forbid the residual dust of those highly toxic substances get onto my skin before I swallowed and ingested it anyway.
I held the two pills in my hands for a minute, looking over them with a strange mix of resentment and reverence. Isn't it strange to think these two pills, along with a whole slew of liquid chemotherapies, were the main staples that held my life in the balance between life and death for the past two years? Take too much of one drug and it would kill me, but take too little of it and the cancer would come back and kill me. But take just the right amount, and I could possibly live.
I remember one time I was in the hospital feeling violently ill from the previous week's chemotherapy infusions, and the nurse in charge tried to console me by saying, "Well, at least you'll be getting more medicine today that'll make you feel better." But the medicine I was getting that day was yet another round of the same chemotherapy that caused high fevers, nausea, hair loss, debilitating fatigue, diarrhea, and vomiting. I don't think she understood how chemotherapy works.
When I finally swallowed those last two chalky white chemotherapy pills several weeks ago, I expected to feel some sort of accomplishment. I expected to feel like I had finally finished the race victoriously and had "beaten cancer." But to be honest, all I really felt was exhaustion. Exhaustion over the past two consecutive years of daily drugs and countless infusions whose very job was to actually kill my cells and wipe out my immune system. Chemotherapy never made me feel better because that wasn't its job. Its job was to nearly kill me and hopefully eradicate my cancerous cells -- both feats it accomplished with breathtaking finesse.
I am relieved to be done with treatments, and I am grateful to be standing on this side of all that has happened. I've known far too many others who did not make it to this point, and I still feel a sharp ripping in my heart whenever I remember that. I am fully (even painfully) aware of how fortunate I am to be alive today, and I thank my God, my doctors, my caregivers, and my support system every time I think of it (which is more often than not).
However, I've become entirely disillusioned with this idea that cancer is a race or battle to be won. I "beat cancer," but I don't feel like I won anything. Others would say I've "fought bravely," but I know I'm not a hero. We use these imperfect metaphors to describe the indescribable experience of facing cancer, but I have to stop and wonder if these metaphors and clichés are doing more harm than good.
Just think about it. When somebody survives a terrible car accident, we don't say he "beat the car wreck and won!" We say he survived a terrible car accident. Similarly, I survived a terrible cancer. This isn't some light switch I can flip and then my life goes back to normal again. At age 20, my life was turned upside down, and now two years later, it's still upside down. Healing is a process and will take time, even after all the colored ribbons and wristbands have been put away and everybody else has consoled him or herself with the idea that I "won" against a freak case of cancer that could never ever possibly happen to them. (Spoiler alert: It wasn't a freak accident. Around 70,000 young adults ages 15 and 39 are diagnosed with some form of cancer each year in the U.S. alone.)
While I know it's well-intentioned, I wish people would stop telling me that I "won." What exactly did I win, my own life? What irritates me most, though, is what that implies about the people who die from their cancers, or whose cancers return and cannot be cured. It implies that if those people had been just a little bit braver, believed just a little bit more, or fought just a little bit harder... then maybe they wouldn't have "lost their battle with cancer." Well excuse me, but that is simply bullshit.
Nobody wins or loses his or her battle with cancer, because it isn't something to be won or lost. The very nature of life is that it is temporary and that it must end at some point. For some of us, that end will come through cancer, and for others it will be by something else. If a person dies of old age, we don't say he "lost his battle with breathing." We say he lived, and then he died. We all live, and we all die. So when it comes to cancer-related deaths, why do so many people still insist on using a metaphor doused in shame and failure?
I believe each day a person diagnosed with cancer keeps on breathing, keeps on living, and keeps on loving should be considered a victory against cancer. Cancer doesn't get to claim the final victory, because it was a fixed game to begin with. Each person was going to die anyways. What matters is how we live in spite of that fact.
This doesn't just apply to people facing cancer, though. This also applies to everyone, no matter what kind of battle they may be facing. How will you live today?
I have a mantra of sorts that I often repeat to myself. It's gotten me through the worst of chemo, and continues to get me through the long-term physical and psychological effects of chemo now:
I am here.
I am alive.
And I am not finished yet...
Dear reader, please do not become so focused on the end result that you miss the beauty and the wonder of this very moment. There is so much more to life than can be captured by the simple, imperfect metaphor of a battle won or lost. Sometimes the victory comes in the process itself, not in the end result.