I turned 40 last year. As for many people who turn 40, the event gave me pause. It hadn't occurred to me that I was approaching mid-life, let alone just a step or two away from entering it, but here I was. Losing my best friend to ovarian cancer at her absurdly young age just a year before had certainly started me thinking about life in a different way. Of course I had known that I was going to die someday; we all know that, with our heads. But what does it take to make us really know it, to feel it and believe it and to have that fact change the way that we live our lives?
You would think that losing someone I loved so dearly, someone I had expected to have beside me for life, would be a wake up call about the whole mortality thing. But the human mind is a mysterious and stubborn thing. Though I had slowed down long enough to look death over, before long I was once again blithely skipping along my life path, still believing that somehow it would be different for me. My 40th birthday introduced an annoying little voice in the back of my mind, one that whispered things like "midway through life" and "not young anymore." But still I had yet to take heed, to really believe it. I was like a willful child, insisting that I was still young. Too young to think about dying.
And then I got cancer. There's nothing like having a doctor look at you and say "You have cancer" to wrap a shoelace in your chain and send you head over bottom off your smooth ride. Because, in our society, cancer = death. The equation might not be complete, but there is no doubt that death is a thought that crosses almost all our minds when we hear the C word. As a Chinese healer said to me, heart disease is just as deadly, but there is a stigma about cancer that just won't go away. You feel as though you have been handed a death sentence.
Well, actually, I didn't. I knew I had a very good prognosis, that we caught it early and that in all likelihood I would be fine. Different, for sure, but fine. But having cancer has cast a shadow over the rest of my life, both the shadow of mortality and the subsequent looming reality that I am getting older. No ignoring it now. One of the first things I thought when he told me I had cancer was "I'm too YOUNG to have cancer." Which in one way is true; we're all too young to have to go through the kind of fear and uncertainty that cancer delivers. But, of course, there is no such thing as too young to have cancer. And me... well, I'm really not that young.
Right after I was diagnosed, I bought some books to read that I hoped would help me cope. One of them is Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, by Kris Carr, which has been an excellent resource for me. She includes many of her friends in the book, one of whom started a web community for young people with cancer. How does she define young? Ages 15 to 40. So. There it is again. The cusp. And I am on the edge of it, teetering between being young and... old? I'm a young person with cancer now , but when I turn 41 in 2 months... what then?
I know that it doesn't really matter. That regardless of my age, I will be this person that I am, dealing with these obstacles that I'm facing. I will be the person I have always been while I cope, and maybe even emerge a little stronger and wiser. But can you blame me for getting excited when Dana Farber sent me a pamphlet about their special programs for young women with breast cancer? It was mildly thrilling to know that I fit their criteria for young. And yet, what if I hadn't? In a society that puts so much value on youth, it is hard to accept getting older. With a little luck and some serious introspection, all this experience should make me a better person, right?
As always, I begin writing hoping that I can make some sense out of this jumble of thoughts that I've been having lately, and, as usual, I fear I have failed again. However, I'd like to leave you with an image. I went shopping with some friends, and we found some housecoats for me to wear after surgery. Pants won't be a fun option because of the incision on my stomach, and pulling things over my head won't be possible right away because of how the mastectomies will affect my arms, so housecoats are the best option. A housecoat was standard garb for my great-grandmother Lovica, a fundamental supply, like a cup of black instant coffee, a cigarette and her rocking chair. I loved my grandmother dearly. Now I'm starting to look like her. And in preparation for my surgery, I'm going to embrace my inner old lady, the one I intend to be some day. Right after I dye my hair.