Last year, I celebrated a “milestone” birthday–the big 5-0, as they say–so I have a lot of friends who’ve also recently or will soon celebrate their own mid-century milestones. There’s something about milestone birthdays that brings out the denial and lamentations. “Me? I’ll be 29 again this year!” Or “I’m 39 and holding!” Or “I can’t believe I’m getting so old! Look at my chin/neck/knees/crow’s feet.” I’ve said it, too.
The older I get, the more often I hear, “Yeah, I don’t celebrate birthdays anymore. I just try to forget that I’m having one!”
I betcha know where I’m going with this.
That last one, especially, has come to stick in my craw. We’ve all heard the axiom, “Growing old is a privilege denied to many.” The thing is, it’s true. There’s not a one of us, cancer survivor or no, who can take another birthday for granted.
Aging is a gift, and it is humbling. Your body seems to begin conspiring against you: you can’t eat or drink what you used to, not without surprising consequences. You can go as hard as you did in the previous decade, but it will take twice as long to recover. And everything seems to drift down, crinkle up, or both.
Aging with cancer is especially humbling. Ever since my first round of chemo, I belch like a seventh grade boy. It happens without warning. I almost look forward to the day one erupts in class or a faculty meeting. It’s a side of me so few have seen. Or, rather, heard. And then there’s what I’ve come to call the “sudden snot.” Something in my current treatment makes my nose drip, and it happens so quickly that I end up with a long string before I even know it’s begun. I don’t have enough stamina for running with my legs at present, so my nose is making up for it.
TMI? Well, that’s one of the good things that comes with growing older–you no longer give a fig what others think about you anymore.
And then there are the memory issues. I haven’t forgotten what I wanted to say about that…though that could happen. I’m just saving that subject for another day. Really.
When I turned 40, I didn’t tell anyone it was a “big” birthday, because a lot of people I knew thought I was several years younger than I was, and I thought preserving that fiction was important. Now I wish I’d kicked up my heels and had a big bash. By the time I turned 50, I understood just what an incredible privilege growing older really is, and I owned it. And I plan to own it for every birthday I’m lucky enough to have for the rest of my life. And I urge you to own your years, too.
Aging is humbling. It’s not for the faint of heart, as they say. I say, embrace all its indignities and laugh all the louder for it. You’re still here. That’s the best gift any of us could wish for.
This coming Friday, I will celebrate my fifty-first birthday. And make no mistake, though it will just be Steve and me at home with the cats, there will be a full-on party taking place in my heart.
One year ago yesterday, a Saturday, I was at The Stone House owned by Black Dog Salvage, preparing for my “Fifty and Fabulous” birthday party. We’d been planning the party for a while, and I was excited and looking forward to the evening’s festivities. But my joy was tempered by news I’d received two days earlier. On that Thursday I’d been taking part in an annual holiday craft fair sponsored by the women’s organization at Roanoke College. I had arranged my table of wares for sale: origami tea-light lanterns, notecards that featured prints of my watercolors, and a few original watercolor cards. I’d just gotten things set up to my satisfaction when I saw I’d missed a phone call from my breast surgeon’s office. I knew it was likely to be about the results of a recent punch biopsy from a red patch that had developed just above my left armpit. I slipped into an empty classroom, sat down in a desk, and returned the call with shaking hands and clumsy fingers. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know. I was worried.
When the nurse practitioner came on the line, she asked me if I was sitting down. I pretty much had my answer in that moment. Then came the gut punch.
“I’m afraid I have some really bad news,” she said.
Wait, what? Even in my state of heightened anxiety, I felt like something was off in the way she was framing things. But it was all I could do to keep breathing. “Okay.”
“The biopsy does show breast cancer.”
“I’m so sorry. I know you were hoping for a different result. We all were.”
Breathe, Sandee, Breathe. I asked her something about next steps, what tests I’d need. She told me they’d refer me to my medical oncologist, and I’d need scans, then likely chemo and/or radiation.
Then she said, “Unfortunately, most of the time when we see it in the skin, it means it’s already everywhere.”
Every cell in my body clanged like a fire engine heading to a five-alarm fire. No. No, no, no, no, no. We ended the call, and I walked, stunned, back to my exhibit table. I’d brought some paints and blank cards with me, and the only thing that saved me running screaming from the room was making art. I put my head down and started drawing, one tiny line after another tiny line, until they formed a flower. Then another. This. I can still do this.
I kept it mostly together until I delivered a pack of notecards to a colleague I knew, though not well, on my way back to my office. She asked how I was doing, and the dam broke. She sat with me in a back room until I calmed down, then I headed to my office and on to a scheduled hair appointment. I cried to my hairdresser, who is a wizard with both hair and human. How on earth was I going to get through my party? I didn’t want it to become all maudlin and weepy. I wanted it to be a celebration. In many ways, perhaps, I needed to celebrate more than ever.
Steve was traveling on business and driving back from Tennessee that day, and I didn’t want to upset him and then have him be on the road, so I held off calling him. My parents were scheduled to arrive late that afternoon. I expected to burst into tears the moment one of them put their arms around me to hug hello, but it didn’t happen. And then something shifted in me, and I didn’t want to be the daughter with cancer. I just wanted a nice, normal afternoon, pleasant conversation, party talk. At some point I decided I would hold the news unless or until one of them asked me directly about the biopsy. That didn’t happen until after dinner, shortly after Steve came in, when we were all sitting in the living room together. My mother asked if I’d ever heard back about my test. I whispered–all I could manage, suddenly–“Yes. Yes, I did.”
I’m still angry about the editorializing that framed the report–you don’t tell a patient “I have really bad news,” which essentially tells them “be scared” and adds to their trauma. Using I-language, something like “I’m sorry to have to tell you that…” helps the patient understand it’s not good news, but doesn’t impose emotions on them. And it was way out of line that I was told skin metastasis is often a sign of widespread disease. It was pure speculation, terrifying, and utterly unhelpful, as neither I nor my doctors could confirm or deny where the cancer was or wasn’t until I had more tests. Because of that statement, I had to do the extra labor of carrying that possible story around while I waited to know. One of the most important aspects of self-care you can exercise as a cancer patient is to distinguish what you know from the stories you might tell yourself about what you know, and all we knew was that I had a small patch of cancer in the skin above my left arm. That news was hard enough to hear without the commentary. We would later find out that it wasn’t everywhere, only in the skin and a few nearby lymph nodes.
But I was talking about celebrations, and I promised you a happy story. As my parents, Steve, and I sat in the living room that Thursday night, processing, after I’d answered my mother’s question and we’d all shed a few tears, Steve asked, “So, is the party still on?”
My answer: “Hell, yes, the party’s still on!”
And it was. We didn’t share the news outside of family ahead of time so we could focus on fun. And it was fun, and fabulous, full of friends and laughter and family and cupcakes and music and dancing. There were a couple of toasts, and as Steve spoke his, I looked around the room at all the people who’d filled my life and heart with so much beauty and joy. And in that moment, I knew something important.
I knew that I had loved, and I had been loved. And I would keep loving and being loved. And whatever else I would or wouldn’t do in my days on this earth, that was the deepest, truest, most wonderful gift. That was my story. That alone makes mine a life well-lived.
Then we all raised our glasses, turned up the music, and danced.