Whenever I am referred to as a survivor I bristle. I feel fraudulent in accepting the moniker reserved for people who have endured radiation, chemotherapy and their lasting effects. While my experience with breast cancer was more than a blip, it was far less debilitating than many other women hold in their memories. I often consider my experience a major operation as opposed to a duel with mortality. I've been chastised for not appreciating my survivorship, yet here, four years later, I still contend that I do not belong in the echelon of true survivors.
Upon my diagnosis, I was hardly new to cancer. My mother had been a trendsetter when she had breast cancer in 1977. At that time, young women (she was forty) were not getting the disease - it was still reserved for primarily the post menopausal. It was still talked about in hushed tones and whispers. She sailed through her surgery and has not looked back since. My father, having quit smoking 25 years earlier, learned of his asymptomatic, stage four, metastatic lung cancer fortuitously when an emergency room visit for what turned out to be a stroke revealed a mass in his chest. He would be dead, they told us, within the year.
Since my father and I were patients simultaneously (something that brought a strange sort of comfort to us both) we often scheduled our appointments at The Dana Farber Cancer Institute on the same day. We served as note takers and cheerleaders for one another. Since his disease was inoperable and terminal, survival, in my mind, was his goal - not mine. Mine was to get through this with my kids, my husband and my sanity intact.
Gruesome doses of chemotherapy followed by tedious radiation appointments defined my father's life for the three years he survived his diagnosis. I, on the other hand, had a nine hour operation, wound up with pert, perfectly symmetrical B cup breasts (lifted and reduced from their prior incarnation), laid low for six weeks and suddenly I was deemed a survivor.
A year later, I got a call from a friend who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. And, soon after, another friend learned that she, too, was being inducted into a club that no one wants to belong to. Of the three of us, I got off the easiest. Without chemo I never had to face tufts of hair on my pillow. I never had to look at myself in the mirror devoid of eyelashes. I never had to fill a prescription for Tamoxifen or drag myself to the hospital every weekday for radiation treatments. They both had to do all those things. They, in my mind, are the true survivors. They are the ones who tested positive for the BRCA gene and endured prophylactic hysterectomies. I was spared. I was lucky in so many ways. Yet I am so conflicted about having been spared some of the most horrible atrocities of this disease.
Perhaps it is survivor's guilt, or being a glutton for punishment, or profound gratitude for having been spared so many of the horror of this disease that have convinced me that, rather than being a survivor, I have merely added breast cancer to my history along with the more banal accomplishments of mother, wife, daughter and sometimes writer. Or perhaps I simply define survivor differently.
I deem my mother a survivor for having attacked a disease that was nonexistent among her peers in a time before it was spoken about widely and teams of women were walking miles on end to raise funds for its research. My father survived by outliving his dire diagnosis by two years and literally preparing to head to the office the morning he died. My girlfriends who fought the fight and looked beautiful throughout were survivors. I suppose one could argue that my sense of humor and generally upbeat mood during the period of my surgery and reconstruction would earn me a survivor title. I'm still reconciling that in my mind.
Julie, a graduate of Skidmore College, lives outside of Boston with her husband, Rich, and two sons, Harrison and George. Currently at home with her kids (who provide endless material for her blog: www.julieross.wordpress.com) she has worked in sales, marketing and promotions over the past twenty years. She is unsure how she can have done anything for twenty years since she has convinced her younger son (and herself) that she is only 23.