Image by _william via Flickr
I admit that my response was to feel guilty when I heard that two of my high school classmates had died in the month of June 2009 from breast cancer. This guilt is a 21 year routine with a fancy name: survivor's guilt.
Truth be told, 21 years is a long time to feel guilty...
Why is this significant 21 years later?
At that moment I discovered just how close I was to being in the 67%, that is, not alive at that moment, I felt overwhelmed realizing that I had been so close to death. So remarkable and terrifying, this knowledge after-the-fact filled me with a fear of dying that I carry with me to this day. The information literally freaked me out. Then I got really angry that no one had told me this. After all, it was my right to know how grave my situation was. I'm not saying I would have done anything differently, I just feel I had been robbed of the opportunity to feel that fear in the appropriate moment and process it during my cancer treatment experience.
Fear after the fact is a strange beast indeed. I began to question why I was alive and why some of the young adult cancer patients I met and befriended were not. After all, there were no obvious differences between us. I did not see anything different, special or exceptional about myself that would entitle me to be a survivor over my friends. We all deserved a chance to keep living. I could not make sense of it; I wanted desperately to make sense of it.
As for my fear of dying, there may be hope for me yet. I recently discovered this quote:
"We can help those afraid of dying..
...but how do you help those afraid of living?"
Now that I live with chronic illness---chronic pain, chronic fatigue, dysautonomia, Hepatitis C infection and Type 2 diabetes, all late effects and complications of my cancer treatment 21 years ago---I wonder what my friends who didn't survive cancer would think. Would they have wanted to survive their cancers too only to go on to deal with a whole range of long-term and late effects related to the cancer treatment they received? Living with chronic illness can be a real ordeal and there are days when, for a few microseconds, I regard being a cancer survivor as not that much of a blessing. What I have gained in extra years of life has been paid for by losses, unrealized dreams, worries, struggles and disappointments. Thank goodness I am flexible in the face of change, otherwise I would be in a million little pieces by now...
My friend Julie, who lost her battle with colon cancer in 1989, used to say that cancer was like the sword of Damocles: you never knew when it would swing the other way and chop off another piece. Watching from her place in heaven, I think she would also say that life as a cancer survivor is an equally precarious situation in which chance delicately dictates whether further tragedy will strike.
Perhaps now I can let go of my survivor's guilt, knowing that cancer survivorship, like cancer, is also a double edged sword.