The title of my book, Chemo on the Rocks: My Great Alaskan Misadventure, pretty much sums up the years leading up to diagnosis, and the aftermath of surviving a brutal disease while living in Ketchikan, Alaska. Humor rules the pages and I’m grateful I was one of the fortunate ones who can call ovarian cancer a footnote to a much longer story.
I’ve never felt comfortable with the survivor label, but today I’m wearing a T-shirt that states that beautifully, in an understated font surrounded by flowers. I guess after 30 years it’s time to acknowledge that my “survival” is a helluva feat.
I recently exhibited my book at a conference where the main focus was ovarian cancer. The attendees were cancer survivors, spouses, family, friends, physicians, and pharmacological folks. We were provided a pin that says _ xx__ year survivor. I was reluctant to place a number in the blank space, as it was obvious by some flashy headscarves and sporty short hairstyles that some women were in the throes of the fight. There’d been some buzz about the woman who was 30 years post ovarian cancer, who’d had children after chemo.
“Go talk with her, she’s down there, selling her book. It’s amazing.” They weren’t referring to my amazing book. They were referring to my beating heart.
I was unprepared to have a number—apparently a big significant number—be the focus. The budding, and necessary, mini-marketer in me thought I better change the tagline quick, from “misadventure” to “30 year survivor”. These folks were hungry for hope. My very presence was inspiration to them. Some were experiencing cancer for the first time. Some were experiencing multiple recurrences. There I sat looking all pretty with my healthy red hair, with cancer so far behind me, while women hugged and thanked me for giving them confidence that they could beat the malignant monster inside them too. I will be forever humbled by that experience. It’s hard to go there—to be reminded that all I hold dear could never have been realized. To be defined by one number of 30 years, and another do-not-exceed number of 35, which is a cancer antigen blood test indicator of a possible recurrence.
One lovely and spunky woman asked me, “Becky, do you ever forget? Is there ever a day or a time you forget about the cancer?” The simple answer is no. And I don’t want to. It’s a part of me—this illness that has been silent in me for a while. It has jumped out from behind dark corners a few times, thrown my life in a tailspin, demanded CT Scans, and more than my yearly blood test to make sure the number is not over 35.
Cancer could happen again. I suppose the odds are higher, based on my health history, but I will not be defined by a what if, not when I’m having more fun experiencing what’s next.
I love to laugh—to find humor in the absurd. I experience and often create a lot of absurd, so laughter’s prevailing winds usually keep me safe, and sane. Surviving a major illness, however, does not shield one from foibles for the rest of their life, and like everyone else, I experience headaches, heartaches, and life’s joys and sorrows. In a bizarre way, cancer, while taking so much from me, provided me the ability to be a compassionate, empathetic woman, and sometimes fearless in sharing with others how I feel. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I’m pretty sure that cancer toughened me up enough to fight again, should that be necessary.
I’ll be 54 this week. My body sort of feels the years, but in so many ways I’m still that young woman who took a detour at the age of 24 and is just now realizing her strength. I’ll celebrate in my “survivor” shirt that I bought from the spunky woman at the conference who challenged me to own my survival.