Updated: Sep 25
Cancer is often measured in anniversaries and fruit. We survivors often report in with our years out from the cancer after our initial diagnosis, yet in diagnostic land, we speak of tumors as big as grapefruits or plums.
Today is my third anniversary of being diagnosed with eye cancer aka ocular melanoma, which made me wonder how many years I’ve survived breast cancer. Twenty, and I think it’s a good thing to not have remembered my March 22, 2002 anniversary until now.
“Ordinary people stuff — that’s what you want to get to,” Dr. Stein, my breast cancer oncologist, used to tell me when I was in the middle of intensive chemotherapy almost two decades ago. He meant getting awful colds, flat tires, and bad haircuts, the random annoyances of a life not coalesced around cancer. That includes winking at cancer anniversaries on my way to get some groceries or scrub my bathtub.
While it’s a cliche to say anything can happen, it’s also wind-blown and bone-deep true. My first cancer — a common variety that I was prone to get because of family history and genetics — didn’t teach me that as much as the most recent one — a rare cancer that no one seems to know a lot about except that it tends to be aggressive and needs to monitored for years, decades even.
While there are hundreds of varieties of cancers, let alone various stages and nuances, my experiences were a bit of a study in contrast. I was Stage 2a breast cancer, meaning it had slipped the chute of the tumor (less than the size of a pea) for the hinterlands of the lymph nodes. What followed was rollicking but clearly mapped despite the sudden diversions.
The story started with a mammogram, follow-up imaging, and biopsy, then a lumpectomy, which I thought would land me in short-term radiation and a quick recovery. I cried on the phone with Dr. Jew, my breast cancer surgeon, when she told me of the lymph node involvement, but she also assured me, “Now we’re going to pull you up by your bootstraps, and you’ll be fine.” That’s what we all want to hear with cancer: we’ll be fine, okay, still here for the foreseeable future. What followed? Chemo, a BRCA-1 diagnosis (meaning I had an extreme chance of recurrence and ovarian cancer), and a bunch of “omy” ending surgeries: hysterectomy, oophorectomy, double mastectomy. Although I experienced many manner of ailments and some dangers (a lot like crossing the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride), I was fine once on the other side.
Three years ago today I sat in a small, dark examination room with Ken and my soul brother Ravi when an ocular oncologist told me — after an ultrasound of my eyeball and contrast dye scan that involved staring into the fires of Mordor — it was a melanoma, and it was large (thankfully, she didn’t give me a fruit analogy). She had earlier said it was either that or a brain tumor, to which I replied, “Let’s just root for the melanoma then.” The wait between that conversation and the actual diagnosis was one of the hardest hours of my life, my mind drowning in scenarios of not a lot of time left on this planet I love so much.
But this cancer, unlike my first one, was not mappable. My new oncologist as well as my therapist and other wise people told me adamantly not to google “ocular melanoma,” and they were right (something I discovered when I did google it one terrible night). There are something like 27 stages and the mortality rate is high, all of which changes the language of statistics and detailed staging to something more akin to impressionistic art (which is also how my right eye saw and continues to see the world). While I didn’t experience much pain in my breast cancer road trip, this was an odyssey to uncharted territory, plus the eyes are delicate creatures. Two surgeries — one to insert a gold disk with radioactive pellets, and one to remove the disk — were post-anaesthesia excruciating, especially in a migraine-prone woman. Light hurt and it still does on occasion.
Although today is my eye cancer anniversary, I’m not sure what that means because I’m not clear (especially when I look out my legally-blind but seeing-in-its-own-way right eye) on when I’m completely in the clear. That might have something to do with having CT scans or MRIs every season for at least ten years, each one assuring me that there’s no micro-metastases to liver or lungs, and each one another high-five with the universe that I’m okay. But I am okay, years after my ocular oncologist said “I promise you, are you going to be okay.”
What it is an anniversary of is gratitude and love. I’m so grateful for all the people who love me and who I love who were there and still are with me three years later. My friends and family who brought over Ritz crackers and chicken soup, sat ten feet away from me outside during the stretch when I was radioactive and hurting, listened late into the night (especially Ken, who was my real-time, all-the-time greatest supporter), and talked me down from trees of fear. I’m so grateful to be here and so in love with this life, right now full of teenage-sized leaves blowing hard on Cottonwood Mel, bright clouds and contrasting deep blue skies. It all reminds me how good life is, each day an anniversary of getting and being here.