“Here’s your t-shirt,” my friend said, as she handed me the bright pink “Relay for Life” shirt, sporting the word “Survivor” on the back.
“You gave me the wrong shirt,” I said, my face contorted with confusion.
“No, I didn’t. You had cancer, right?” She stood facing me, now, holding the shirt in her outstretched hand.
“Yes, but it was only a basal cell. It wasn’t life threatening.”
“They’re all life threatening. You had cancer. Just because it wasn’t terminal doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected you.”
And there it was. The word that changed the way I looked at my experience: “affected.” She was right, it had. Every year, I go see my dermatologist, who examines me from head to toe to ensure that there is no recurrence. I had a very unusual, very aggressive basal cell. It wasn’t the type many develop from sun damage. It resulted from some kind of viral or bacterial infiltration. My cat had nicked my face while he and I were playing with a ball and because he didn’t break the skin, I didn’t rush to clean the site. He reached for it and I got too close. But according to the pathologist, it could have been caused by anything that broke the delicate skin under my eye.
The t-shirt experience resonated with me because I didn’t suffer the way I’d seen friends and family suffer: the way I’m watching many suffer, right now. Yes, I’d had three hours of surgery to excise three inches of unseen, underlying infiltration in my right cheek. Yes, I’d nearly lost my right eye. But I hadn’t had to have chemo or radiation. I walked away with clear margins and no subsequent treatment. Imagine my confusion at the word “survivor.” But I’m lucky because that IS what I am. I have the scar to prove it.
My friend Mary recently experienced a much more compelling confusion as she sat in her oncologist’s office for her post-surgical exam. And as I read her account here, I was reminded that I too am changed and I felt myself psychologically pushing her up the survival ladder. Don’t be mistaken; I am not recounting my story because I want to move the spotlight. No. It’s because experiencing cancer in any form takes you through a range of emotions that are unexpected, even if that cancer isn’t the kind that kills you. As she sat amid others whose cancer was much more proliferative and possibly terminal, my friend felt the guilt that comes with early detection and quick treatment. It’s a good guilt, which makes it all the more strange.
I have, in the last month, watched friends suffer disfiguring surgeries, chemo, radiation, shock, unbearable nausea, hospitalization from dehydration, weight loss, hair loss and more. Thankfully, all of those friends are surviving, too. As I watch them, I applaud their grace. They are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, homemakers, entrepreneurs, business owners and to a one, they are strong. They don’t feel it all of the time, but it’s there. I look at them through the eyes of one who scratched the surface of cancer and think about how much more they are surviving and that twinge of guilt makes me pray harder that they’ll get the chance to feel every bit of survivor’s guilt, too.