It wasn't until ten thirty on Wednesday night, when I was already lying in my bed - restless in both the heat of the cotton sheets and from the constant stream of thoughts circling in my head - that I remembered. The momentum of my gasp jolted me upright. I grabbed my phone from my nightstand and sent a text message to the last person I had contacted that night. I typed in a fury, "I just realized what today is/was! It's the six year anniversary of being told I had cancer! Yay!" I was in such a state of shock, both ashamed of myself for forgetting, and amazed that it was possible. I thought it was remarkably appropriate that I had overlooked the sixth anniversary of the sixth day of the sixth month of two thousand and six.
Had it really been six years since that afternoon, when I sat in an office at the clinic I'd been going to since I was a child, and a balding man in a lab coat told me so matter-of-factly that my biopsy results showed that I had stage two mixed cellularity Hodgkin's Lymphoma? Was it really six years ago that everything started to change? I could still hear the empathic voices of my two primary doctors rushing into the room after the first doctor gave up on trying to talk to me as I wailed in disbelief. Their arms had been around me; I could still feel it now. They had known me since I was a child. They had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly which I had already been through. They took turns giving me encouraging statistics and dabbing at their own eyes while I sat in a chair next to my fiancˇ, his eyes red, his hand nearly crushing mine. I could only concentrate on one thing, one word: Cancer.
We returned to our new home, the one I had just signed the papers for not two weeks before. I made phone calls to family and friends while he paced the house looking for a solution, or a distraction. He would try to smile, to comfort me, and then we'd both quiver and cry the way young people without a concept of mortality would. The hours and days that proceeded were unrecognizable blurs, and I hated that they went on existing as usual, like nothing was different. Everything was different. The world hadn't changed, but yet, mine did.
Six years ago I began chemotherapy, then radiation, and in the end of December 2006, I was done. The last day of radiation was amongst the scariest of all the days - suddenly I had nothing to do; the fight was over. Life was supposed to go on as if none of it had ever happened. I had graduated back into normalcy, only, that was impossible. Everything was different. There was no support group, at least none that I was aware of, to guide me back into the world of post-cancer. I fumbled to regain my bearings in an existence that had been changed, like being in an unfamiliar house with the lights turned off.
Friends and family, many of whom didn't know how to act or react after my diagnosis, came out of their bunkers to celebrate my victory in the battle of lymphoma. They emerged back into my life unscathed, happy to see that I only had minimal flesh wounds from the fight, offering me their excuses for not being on the front lines with me. They were ready to move on and to pick up our lives where we had left them back in the summertime when they learned that I had been taken in by illness. But I struggled to re-adjust. I wouldn't go so far as to compare my experience with PTSD, but in many ways, it felt like I had been changed. I was hurt by the isolation and loneliness I had experienced. Of course, I knew that there were people in my life who were thinking of me and hoping for the best for me, and I'll never forget them for it, but those who couldn't break out of their own fears to stand by my side, those who didn't express their own emotions about death, and disease, and the fear of the unknown - they didn't seem like the people I wanted to celebrate with. I was tired of pretending that life wasn't happening all around us. I wanted to embrace and appreciate every moment, good or bad, with the people I loved.
I survived one of the most challenging experiences most people will ever face. I came through to the other side of it with an appreciation for life that I had never dreamed was possible. It took me several months after recovery to realize that my life was not fulfilling, rich, and full of love in the way I felt it ought to be. I needed to start over. I had been given a second chance to live, and to let it lose its meaning - to sweep it back under the rug and to treat it as a bad dream, to pretend that nothing had ever happened . . . it just wasn't an option.
So I started over. I tried to help others embrace my enthusiasm, and those who couldn't share in that with me I knew I needed to let go. It meant selling the house four years ago and moving back to my home town - single. I worked to build stronger relationships with the friends and family I had in my life, and I began to seek out new people and new experiences. My past had been primarily full of anxiety and seeking shelter from the unknown, but - through trial and error - I learned to let go of my fear. Things didn't always go as well as I had hoped, but the positive growth in my life far outnumbers any negatives. I reached out and my social circle has expanded far beyond that which I had during my illness. I have wonderful, supportive people in my life, both old friends and new. They are from many different backgrounds, they are optimistic and soulful, and they embrace life. They are people whom I trust, that I can count on in times of crisis, and who, I hope, feel the same about me. We talk about our fears, our dreams, our pasts and our passions. Through similar passions, such as writing, I've been building a community for myself. I stepped up to the role of leadership and formed a writing group, and a year later we've all been finding success and growth in our work. Manifesting my own destiny is something which I have never known before, it is thrilling and rewarding, and knowing that in the process I am able to help others achieve their own goals and dreams has made my life rich. I am always growing, dreaming, and discovering life. I've traveled alone, without much of a plan, and re-discovered myself in a state I'd never been to before. I overcame my anxiety about flying at the same time. I've learned to tell my loved ones what they mean to me, that I love them, that they've impacted my life, and that I am grateful for knowing them. I know now that in an instant everything could change. We won't be here forever and I don't want important things like that to go unsaid. I've grown into a more compassionate, optimistic, and selfless person who loves life. I am a person who I never would have imagined I could be six years ago. I am happy.
Each day that I wake up I am thankful, and even on the worst of days I find something to appreciate. I live with gratitude for having had cancer six years ago. I don't ever forget that it's what began the journey to becoming the person that I am today. To have nearly forgotten the anniversary of when it all started has been a tremendous weight on my shoulders. It made me wonder whether it was time to let it go, or time to rediscover its effect on me. The simple fact that on the anniversary I did exactly what I would have done had I remembered - I laughed, I walked barefoot in my garden, I helped others, I created, and I simply enjoyed my day - it goes to show that whether I recognize and celebrate a date or not, joy and love have become ingrained in my soul, because I went through a darkness and came out the other side.
Patti Lynn Henry is a Letter Carrier in small-town Minnesota by day and an aspiring author by night. She continually seeks a deeper understanding and appreciation for life, and she strives to improve the quality of it for herself and others. This story was written to commemorate the day that she never thought she would experience -- the day that she momentarily forgot the biggest anniversary of her life. Her website is pattilynnhenry.com.