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Five Years Later

by Sheree Kirby

My doctor recently informed me that the five-year mark holds no magic for those of us who've been treated for breast cancer. "You're likely out of the woods with some of the other cancers," she said, "but breast cancer can come back anytime." She added the last part with a shrug, as though she were merely commenting on one of life's many curiosities.

I have yet to fully absorb this casual revelation. I had been counting on that five year mark to motivate me to toss out my fears like an unmatched sock. No more losing sleep every time some vague pain in the ribs lasts for more than thirty seconds, or running to the doctor with each headache that doesn't immediately respond to aspirin, or googling the night away when a cough lingers longer than the cold that caused it.

But without the benchmark reassurance of a cure, I've had to rethink the whole thing! After all, even an unmatched sock can be useful. A duster. A cat toy. A golf club cover…

My hyper-vigilance served its purpose for quite a while… but lately it's worn thin. It takes a lot of energy to maintain the illusion that I can control the progression of my disease -- that by imagining the worst, I can somehow keep the worst from happening.

My doctor has given me a new prescription -- to stop focusing on whether my cancer has/will/can return, and to start living fully, despite the unknown and because of it. She handed me a slip of paper, which read:

"Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present."

I've never been a fan of mysteries. I'm a planner -- one foot firmly planted in the future -- a future that, before cancer, I'd naively believed would go on forever.

So, I can't just toss out my sock with this week's recycling. But I have promised to take baby steps, and to begin unraveling it stitch by stitch.

This piece was recorded as a Perspective for the NPR affiliate, KQED, San Francisco. To listen, please follow this link.