Nine days ago I was driving my one-headlight-ed Subaru from a garage in Denver back to my apartment in Loveland. It was late night (or early morning), and I had intended to start my drive hours before, but something had slowed my journey.
I am terrible at speaking them. That ancient notion of speaking reality into existence always prevents me from leaving events in a timely manner (that and a nearly incessant need to be surrounded by people). So I delayed. And I had one more beer. And a million more French fries. Until everyone in the city was headed to sleep.
The journey home from CancerCon is always more difficult than the journey leading there. On the way there, I am excited, anxious to be surrounded by my people, BEYOND ready to laugh, cry, drink, and dance with those who persist through trauma of a unique kind.
The journey home is darker. By then I am emotionally and physically spent, but still not ready to rest. It’s only now, nine days later, that I am finally giving myself the time to process.
Even though I want to remember every last detail of the conference perfectly, remembering and processing are different. I want to preserve the highs and lows… but I don’t always want to face what they mean.
Because what do they mean? Each incredible story of survivorship I have had the honor of witnessing… what does it mean?
There are parents struggling to teach their kids about cancer, kids struggling to grow into self-sufficient adults with cancer, young adults wrestling with their sexuality and cancer, and all of us trying to define our survivorship of/with cancer.
(We get it, Emily, you all had cancer).
One phrase you’ll hear a lot at CancerCon is that “cancer does not define you.” You are more than rogue cells and disease. I think there is truth to this phrase: I am not Ewing’s sarcoma and Ewing’s sarcoma is not me, but it is a part of me. A cancer diagnosis sends ripples throughout the whole of you, and no part remains untouched.
But if I am not my cancer, then who AM I?
A woman. A daughter sister friend. A teacher mentor counselor. A Christian philosopher feminist. A cat mom. A writer. A coffee and beer lover. I still have all the little identities that make me who I am, but they too have been affected by cancer, because cancer changes your cognition.
One of the scariest things that I’ve dealt with as a survivor is memory loss. Chemotherapy takes a serious toll on the body, and if I’ve had enough to kill my ovaries, imagine what it’s done to my brain cells.
I spoke with a dear friend about chemo-induced memory loss during those long, drawn-out goodbyes of Sunday night. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he told me all the things he was documenting for his baby, so he wouldn’t forget and she would always know all the tiny, myriad ways that he loves her so dearly.
I joke with people that I don’t remember about 90% of my life, but it’s not a joke. I don’t remember great swatches of time. Almost nothing from elementary school through high school… even college.
If I can’t remember the life I’ve lived, how do I come to terms with who I am?
This post is dotted with questions, most of which I don’t have answers to. What I CAN say is that I trust my support network. Whether biological family, or family forged through cancer, I know that the people around me will not forget who I am, and I will not forget what they mean to me.
That’s yet another reason why the goodbyes every year are so difficult: not only am I afraid that some friends may die before the next CancerCon comes, I am afraid of forgetting those small, wondrous moments that created our connections in the first place.
Some cancer survivors are memorable for the feats they’ve accomplished, like Sean Swarner, who spoke at the conference about his experience summiting Mt Everest with only one working lung, or Matthew Zachary, who founded Stupid Cancer and created this beautiful place called CancerCon; but the amazing thing about survivors is that we are just ordinary people who have gone through incredible hardship. Which means our survivorship, identities, and memorability can all be explained using my grandpa Cliff Von Berg’s quote:
You are what your impact is on other people.
I may not summit any mountains, or even remember the details of how we met, but if you are a part of my cancer family (caretakers included), then I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the profound impact you have had in shaping who I am in this moment as well as who I hope to become in the future.
May your beautiful stories continue to grow.
I apologize in advance if I totally don’t remember you next year *cough* Kyle *cough*
*Dan* I referenced French fries so thank you for sharing.