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  • Cheryl

Survivor's Guilt

If you're not already aware, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And I have a confession to make: It used to drive me nuts, not being able to turn around without seeing pink ribbons all over everything from T-shirts to travel mugs. There are so many cancers in the world, unfortunately, and it seemed (and still does) that none of them get even a fraction of the attention that breast cancer does. On principle, I only got involved with the pink ribbon when I couldn't avoid it.


And then came my own breast cancer diagnosis on October 2, 2018. As one of my cousins commented, I took Breast Cancer Awareness Month seriously. After I got the phone call from the doctor with the news, I called my love, and then I called my parents. By that time, the surrealness of the doctor's announcement had worn off, the reality of the situation had hit me, and the tears had started. I have to laugh now at the memory of declaring to my mother between sobs, "I'm still not wearing a pink ribbon! I don't care! I'm not wearing it!"


Naturally, my obstinance where the pink ribbon is concerned has faded - I'm okay with it now, although I still resent that there isn't such a fervor over other cancers in which so little research and treatment progress has been made. The "pink sisterhood" is real. I've lost track of how many other breast cancer survivors I've met, just in striking up passing conversations with strangers. In Florida last spring, my love and I were sitting at an outdoor concert, chatting with a woman who sat in front of us. My love told her that I had just finished radiation for breast cancer two months earlier, and that this was sort of our celebration vacation. At that, the woman sitting next to her turned around to face us and reached out to take my hand. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop on your conversation," she said, "but I'm a fifteen-year breast cancer survivor myself." That kind of thing happens all the time. And that kind of camaraderie, for me, spills over to *any* kind of cancer patient or survivor.


When you're fighting cancer - or any serious illness - support means everything. I learned that lesson on Day 1, and now I've become one of those who reaches out as a survivor when I hear of someone else fighting the fight. I identify with them in ways I never understood before, which is a blessing and a curse: It's wonderful that something so positive and compassionate can come from something so horrid, and yet along with that identification comes survivor's guilt when you hear that someone lost the battle.


Last year, around this time, I saw in the media that a former "America's Next Top Model" contestant named Jael Strauss was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer on October 2, the same date I was. I'd never watched the show and didn't know who she was, but the fact that we were diagnosed with the same disease on the same day made me feel a kinship with her, and I Googled her and kept track of updates on her condition. Just a few days before my lumpectomy in December, I learned that she had passed away. Her cancer was so aggressive and had already metastasized by the time it was discovered. She was only 34 years old. We were diagnosed the same day, and she'd lost the fight while I was winning mine. She was gone, and I was still here and on the road to complete recovery. That was the very first of many, many times I choked up and thought, "Why her and not me? Why me and not her?" Why was I so lucky? Why was she not?


A friend was diagnosed with cancer last year and successfully completed treatment, only to be diagnosed with a recurrence this past week. Another friend - herself a cancer survivor - posted a few days ago that a family member, who had been her inspiration, lost her own battle with cancer recently. I still, to this day, think about Jael Strauss. Some of these people I know personally; others I don't. But every single time I hear about someone beginning a new battle, or someone losing theirs, I still think, "Why them and not me? Why me and not them?" The guilt is real.


I'm nearly one year out now - I go for my first post-cancer mammogram in exactly two weeks. I can't say I don't worry about it. I'm hopeful for good results, obviously, but I know that if my films come back clear, I'm going to feel guilty. I think that's a normal, human part of being a survivor of any kind. I don't dwell on it; I acknowledge it, and I cry if I need to, but I remind myself that it's okay to be healthy and alive. And then I get back to living, until the next time.



Me in one of my favorite shirts, on the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis.