Cancerversary

When I was diagnosed with cancer 16 years ago, I was only 41, my daughter was only 19 and my marriage was only two years old.

The day I left the doctor’s office and the receptionist said, “I’ll pray for you,” I sat in the car and wept. I looked in the rearview mirror and pictured myself bald. I looked at the future and saw a hole in it. My husband a widow. My daughter with no mom to fluff her wedding dress.

How long would I live?

Long enough for another wedding anniversary? Long enough to see my new stepsons finish high school? Long enough to see my daughter get married?

Cancer makes you think about all that you will miss if it wins.

I didn’t know back then that it would lose.

So I filled a hope chest. Filled it with toys for imaginary grandchildren. Filled it with Winnie the Pooh bookends for my future grandbabies. I bought a tea set. I bought a little music box.

Grandbabies seemed a bare smidge of a possibility back when the oncologist told me the odds for survival: With my type of cancer, a third would be cured from the chemo, a third would probably live without the chemo, a third would die in spite of the chemo.

Which third was I in? There was no way to know.

I had to visualize a future as I lost my breasts to surgery, lost my hair to chemotherapy and lost my energy to six weeks of daily radiation.

Then I lived and kept living and forgot all about the hope chest.

You think you'll never forget all the hope you once hoarded. You mark the calendar to get through chemo. You cross off day after day of radiation. You cross an imaginary finish line that no one tells you is the finish of cancer because no one knows for sure.

You have to live at least five years to say you're cured. Five years is the survival mark. But not really. Every headache, you think, brain tumor. Every backache, you think, bone cancer.

Cancer is big and scary, and then it's over. You either die from it or live past it or live with it.

Today, I celebrate my 16-year "cancerversary." That means I'm still alive 16 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Some days it doesn’t seem big. Other days, it’s gynormous.

Like the day at archery when a fellow archer was raising money for the three-day Komen Walk for the Cure. She was selling cookies she baked to raise money. I thanked her for helping to fight cancer and told her I was a breast cancer survivor.

"My mom had breast cancer, too," she said.

"How is she doing?" I asked.

"She died," the girl said.

She died.

How can you not give thanks for every precious day?

This week, my three grandbabies are spending the week with me. Four sleepover nights. I don’t expect to get much sleep. They are 4 ½, 2 ½ and 8 months old.

Ainsley will want to have tea parties. Asher will want to read every book between those Pooh bear bookends. River will be dazzled by the music coming out of that little box I bought 16 years ago.

All the hope in that hope chest spilled out into my life.

Life. What a gift.