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Celebrating the First Day of Summer & Moving Beyond Cancer

I think many of us living life after cancer tend to start counting.  We count birthdays, months, years, doctors’ appointments, mammograms and other tests that mark our lives after cancer.  We get past the first birthday since our diagnosis, the first mammogram since our treatment, the first “fill in the blank” and we breathe a sigh of relief and keep moving. 

One of the many things I count is summers. Previously, summer meant simplification necessitated by sun and heat – a literal and figural stripping down to the basics of life. But the summer of 2009, my summer of cancer, was anything but for me. That summer fell smack between my mastectomy and TRAM flap surgery of April and September’s second reconstructive surgery. I was in the thick of my personal treatment battle. All I remember are disability and complications, fatigue, isolation and anxiety. My body image was crushed and I was still trying to process those three little words, “You have cancer.” It was by far the worst summer of my life – even outstripping the summer of 1984 for that title, which involved studying for two bar exams, breaking up with my boyfriend and battling longstanding family dysfunction. 

Last year, the summer of 2010, was one of the best of my life. I was joyous, if for no other reason than that I was one year beyond the summer of 2009. I could see progress, or even better, I could feel progress. I was regaining balance through the gifts and losses list. There were still negatives, to be sure. But I was also appreciating the gifts of cancer and letting myself celebrate them as fully as I had mourned the losses.

So, I don’t want to dwell on the summer of 2009, I only bring it up to remind myself how far I have come in just two years. To celebrate, I looked for quotes from inspirational people. They sound like they know a lot about living complicated lives and looking to the gift of summer’s simplicity for balance.  My favorite quote is the first, because in the midst of the summer of 2009, I eventually found my own invincible summer:

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.  Albert Camus

Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York; Shakespeare

There shall be eternal summer in the grateful heart. Celia Thaxter

One must maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.  Henry David Thoreau

I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Do what we can; summer will have its flies.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here is the ghost Of a summer that lived for us, Here is a promise Of summer to be. William Ernest Henley

Summer afternoon - Summer afternoon... the two most beautiful words in the English language.  Henry James

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.  Wallace Stevens 

Happy First Day of Summer!  Please let me know how you celebrate your milestones and how far you've come down the cancer pike.

Survival > Existence,

I'm Not a Young Adult, but "Wrong Way to Hope" Spoke My Language

If I had my wish (and curing cancer wasn’t an option), I’d wish every cancer survivor was surrounded by an unbroken circle of support from the moment their cancer experience began.   If we’re lucky, we have family and friends, but we learn fast that they are only able to understand so much.  What we also need are others who get the struggle, understand the secret code and live in the silences with us.  What we crave are compatriots who speak our new language.

What I didn’t know before Tuesday night is that April is Young Adults with Cancer Awareness Month.  I learned that while attending a film screening of “Wrong Way to Hope.”  Set on the Owyhee River in Oregon, a group of young adult cancer survivors from Canada takes on a grueling, nine day kayaking expedition. Together they battle the river and their fears, and delve into emotions only cancer can elicit.

As they discuss themes of isolation, fear and uncertainty, relationships, silence, identity, and “reintrajectorization”—a term I still can’t pronounce which means re-entering life after cancer treatment – there is pain, but also immense growth.  Talking about their demons and sharing laughter, the group moves toward acceptance and the realization that you can “choose your own adventure.”   As Mike Lang, cancer survivor and leader of the group states, “Stuff happens to you, you know, that you can’t control, but you can choose where you go from there.”

Young adults dealing with cancer certainly have their own perspective and struggles, but they had much more in common with an older person like me than they think.  The experience of cancer is universal, be it breast, colon, esophageal or pancreatic, be the survivor young or old.  Make sure you keep reaching out to others who speak your language.  It’s good for your soul.