The Christmas day that followed a few weeks after I received a terminal cancer diagnosis I sat by myself at my in-laws’ house while the family laughed around the table upstairs. I was so sick and, as a result, so cold, and I sat huddled under a pile of blankets beside the fireplace shivering. And I cried and cried. I cried for all the Christmases I would miss and for the grandmother I was never going to be. My daughters at the time were 7, 5 and 2 and I wondered who would be sitting around the Christmas table with my husband in years to come. Some step mother who gets the job I had signed up for: to grow old with the man I love and the children we created.
My sister came to visit me once in Montreal when I was in university. We were walking around Chinatown one night and came across an old, wizened fortune teller who told us through the gaps in his teeth that we would both live well into our 90s. Because I wanted this to be true I took it as truth, which is an easy thing to do when you are in your early 20s and healthy. I figured I had a lot of time. All the rest of our family lives until they are quite old, so it seemed not an unreasonable thing to believe.
A week after that first post-diagnosis Christmas I turned 40.
The average lifespan for someone with metastatic breast cancer is three years. To make it 10 years past diagnosis is still, at this point, considered a miracle, although things are getting better all the time. I’m much healthier now than I was when I was diagnosed, but I still haven’t hit the three year mark yet. Now I think of life in terms of quality instead of quantity. I have stopped thinking about aging except in the sense that there are so many things about aging I don’t have to worry about: downsizing, nursing homes, saving money for retirement, being old. I joke about the things I will never have to deal with with my husband now, but there is always an underlying sadness to these jokes.
I fully intend to be one of those 10-year outliers. I always say I want to have a long life but not a long death. Quality over quantity. I never wanted to be one of those people who are only living for retirement anyway. Now I mark milestones in shorter increments: every birthday of my daughters that I get to be around for, post-chemo hair growth, family trips we wouldn’t have taken otherwise, date nights with my husband. It seems weird to have been pulled out of the aging equation (although having cancer prematurely ages your body so I haven’t escaped it altogether) but it has been making me focus on the here and now and for the most part I’m pretty happy with the way life is going – as long as I don’t focus on all the things I might miss.
Melanie wrote about healthy eating for Plenty here.