I looked up the work “Survivor” in the dictionary, and here is what it said:
• a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died. Example: ”the sole survivor of the massacre"
• the remainder of a group of people or things. Example: ”a survivor from last year's team"
• a person who copes well with difficulties in their life. Example: ”she is a born survivor"
And this is what people have been saying to me when I’ve told them that I’m done with treatment:
“You’re cancer free!”And that makes sense, given the definition listed above. But Survivorship means something different in the cancer world. According to the National Cancer Institute, here is the definition:
“You’re better now!”
“In cancer, survivorship focuses on the health and life of a person with cancer post treatment until the end of life. It covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, beyond the diagnosis and treatment phases. Survivorship includes issues related to the ability to get health care and follow-up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also considered part of the survivorship experience.”So when someone asks me if I’m planning a party to celebrate "the end of cancer" I almost don’t know what to do.
Because I’m not done. I will never be done with cancer. For the next 5 years I will be going through an inordinate amount of tests to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. (I wrote at length here about the prognosis for my kind of cancer recurring.) And thereafter will always been someone who almost lost her life, and that changes you. Will I be fine? Yes. Am I better? I don't know. I'm pretty sure that if given the option I would have never wanted to get cancer, no matter how much of a silver lining I fight to see.
But I do feel an immense sense of accomplishment. As of Saturday, March 19, I am completely done with active breast cancer treatment. I stare at myself in the mirror and marvel at how resilient my body has been through this whole process: 2 biopsies, 2 surgeries, 16 rounds of the most intense chemo they could throw at me, and 33 rounds of radiation. I have had more scans and needles sticks than I care to count, and my body has withstood these invasions with aplomb. I didn't know I was so strong, and I am in awe of my body and truly honor it in a way I didn't know possible.
The one thing that did not survive, so to speak, was my long blonde hair which I had worked ravenously to save. For the past 5 months I’ve been in a pretty deep depression about the loss of my hair, covering my naked head with hats and a wig. When I lost my hair I lost my sense of self. I no longer knew who I was - and hated who I saw in the mirror. I was at war with myself daily, and here was no end in sight.
But this week, to commemorate the end of treatment, I bucked up my courage and took my scrawny, newly grown locks to the hair salon, where I spent several hours creating a whole new look with my stylist. I have never in my life had short hair, and it was time to face the fact that I can't ignore it anymore. Hiding will not make the problem go away. It's time to embrace it, and find out who I am now.
And it’s as if I’ve been reborn - perhaps not the way I had envisioned, but no phoenix rises from the ashes in the same form they were before the fire. And within one day, I have fallen in love with myself once again.
So, without further ado... The New Normal:
|Twiggy...eat your heart out!|
And yes, if you look closely enough you’ll see that I gave myself a bit of naughty color - a big stripe of purple to bring life back to my being:
|I'm a little bit rock and roll...|
Well, as the definition says above, my focus for the next 5 years is survivorship. I have to take care of this body, but I also now know how precious life is so I will do everything I can to squeeze every last of goodness out of it. I will continue to create with my amazing theater company, I will continue to love and support my friends, and I will try to leave the planet and humanity a little bit better each day. I’m commit to expressing all of myself and not holding back, letting go of the small anxieties, and learning everything I can about the world we live in. No sticking my head in the sand. No running away when things get tough. LIVING.
I look forward to keeping you on this journey with me. Please leave a comment so I know you were here!
PS: I have a bunch of “retrospective” posts that I will be sharing about some of my inner thoughts as I’ve gone through treatment. I’m going through my personal diaries to pull some of the better excerpts, and will share them soon.
Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.