I am a stage 4 colon cancer survivor and I just celebrated my eighth birthday since the diagnosis!
Another year, another birthday, so what one might ask. Well, it is such a huge deal! And not only because my birthday falls on Valentine’s Day:)
For me, the meaning of birthdays has changed drastically in these last eight years.
Why? The answer is CANCER. Getting it, struggling with it, beating the odds, surviving it to tell the tale.
After having gone through that journey I would not wish upon anyone, celebrating another birthday has a different meaning altogether.
As a younger person, I was never much for birthday celebrations.
Starting sometime in my 20s, I would wonder, why would anyone want to celebrate their birthdays past 40 or 50.
What’s there to celebrate, the naïve, youthful thinking went. It’s all just going to go downhill from then on.
I remembered seeing my parents in their mid-40s and, and thinking to myself (wrongly), they are so old, life is finished for them, nothing new and exciting can ever happen after one turns forty or so.
How wrong, how irrational that younger me was!
So many, including my parents, thrive after forty and enjoy the best time of their lives exactly in these later decades. Kids are all grown up, finances are more stable, jobs are secure.
For some, their partnerships are strong and stable. For others, maybe they decided to start a new life without the old partner.
New chances, new possibilities. Now is the time to travel, see the world, enjoy good company, and spend quality time with your life partner, etc., etc.
Of course, the second reason for my new appreciation for birthdays, and a more profound one, is that whole cancer deal.
Just a few months shy of my 45th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer.
The diagnosis was shocking, devastating, and frightening to such an extent that it almost paralyzed me.
I had no idea where to turn for help. There were times, I was ready to give up and let the illness consume me.
At these early stages of facing this monster of a disease, one is thrown into such a whirlwind of emotions, there really is no comparison to any other life experience that I can think of. In our culture, a cancer diagnosis still is equated for a large part with a death sentence.
When facing it, we are literally knocked off our feet.
Why me? What did I do wrong? How long do I have? What about the kids? Why? Why?
When you are diagnosed at the age of 45, then the next big milestones do not seem so old after all.
Will I be able to celebrate my fiftieth birthday? Will I see the day when I turn 60?
Even 70 seems like a young person, definitely not a person that is ready to die.
After the initial shock of my diagnosis, I somehow managed to throw myself into action by trying to save my life.
Action steps that saved me:
Getting second and third opinions, finding an integrative medicine practitioner to complement the mainstream doctors under whose care I was.
Researching stories of survival to give myself hope and belief in miracles because I surely needed one.
Detoxing all aspects of my life to make my body inhospitable to cancer.
Focusing on all aspects of health and wellness to fortify myself: finding the right diet, banning stress, learning coping strategies such as meditation, yoga, connecting with other survivors and fighters to form a community.
All this action allowed me to stay afloat and not give in to debilitating depression.
Even though I could not be sure of the outcome, I was ready for the battle of my life.
I wanted to fight, I had to fight, not only for myself but for those who loved me and depended on me.
The first birthday since the diagnosis was my 45th.
I was thinking about my earlier silliness in shying away from birthday celebrations. I knew right that moment, that from now on, every next year will be a gift and I wanted to celebrate it as such.
Whereas earlier, a birthday meant getting older, now it meant beating the odds and pushing away the disease that wanted to take all the future birthdays away from me.
It meant being here for my kids. It meant another year with the love of my life.
The following year though, more devastating news arrived.
My cancer had progressed to stage 4 and I knew that this spelled trouble many times over worse than the initial diagnosis.
All of a sudden, I was facing not a 40% chance of surviving past a five-year mark but a 10% chance.
One in ten chance to make it to 51 without another recurrence which at this point would very likely mean a terminal illness. A lot to take. A lot to ponder. And a lot to be grateful for.
I hear some survivors say that cancer was the best thing that happen to them in their entire life. I would definitely go that far.
Cancer was nasty.
The three years of active illness – all the treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, getting emaciated to the point of malnutrition, getting bruises the size of watermelons due to low platelet counts, dealing with the increased risk of infections due to low white blood cell counts, suffering from neutropenic fever, anemia, neuropathy – I would be lying if I considered them a gift.
All of it was one huge nightmare and it still is lodged as such in my brain.
But… but… this is not to say that cancer did not teach me things that I probably would not have learned without it, or, at least, not at my tender age of 52.
Such wisdom usually comes with more advanced age. It is attributed to sages and those whose life experiences took them through decades and had them explore places around the globe.
What I’ve learned first and foremost is gratitude.
Every new birthday, every February 14th since that year of diagnosis, I spend pondering the miracle of survival that I was given.
Given the slimmest of chances, one in ten odds, I passed that mark of five-years-survival.
I am here, I am a survivor, I thrive and live a life that is healthier and fuller now than it ever was.
Every new birthday, I am thankful for my body that endured so much and that has proven stronger than I ever imagined it could be.
Prior to my illness, I wasn’t much of an athlete. Exercise was a chore. Fitness was something that other people did.
When I finally found a sport that I really loved – indoor cycling – I became ill not even two years later.
My body did not give up on me. It fought the hardest battle it would ever fight.
It had moments of weakness but it persevered. And it came out stronger than before.
I feel fitter and look stronger now than I did in my thirties.
Every new birthday, I realize with humility how much I have to live for.
The gift of time that I got to spend with my family and my friends.
The possibility of meeting new people, learning from them, and enjoying their company.
The joy of seeing the changing seasons and the cycles of nature in my little garden.
Every new birthday, I am in awe of all the love that surrounds me.
The marriage that was already great before my illness has become still stronger and more affectionate than before.
Whenever the thought crosses my mind, how did I deserve that cancer, I think immediately, how did I deserve to have such a loving companion for the past twenty-four years?
Maybe life is one big lottery, and if it is, I certainly received a good share of the top prizes.
Every new birthday, I am brought to tears by seeing my children getting older and more mature year after year.
When I was first diagnosed, my oldest was twelve and my youngest was three years old.
The very thought of leaving them without a mother at such young age was breaking my heart back then.
Seeing my oldest halfway through college and my youngest graduating elementary school is nothing short of a miracle given the odds that were stacked against me.
How do I feel about all this?
So, what is age?
All this talk about 40 is the new 20, 50 is the new 30!
Does the biological age really matter?
Let’s celebrate the passage of years not for the fact that it makes us older but rather for the fact that it makes us wiser and better equipped to deal with whatever life can throw at us.
Let’s celebrate the gifts that we are given, be it the gift of time, the gift of love, or the gift of joy.
The survivor’s perspective on birthdays and aging might be a cure for midlife crises of all kinds.
Realizing what really matters can set you free. Don’t sweat the small stuff. See the big picture.
Understand the gifts that the universe has bestowed upon you, including second and third chances.
Now go and built the best life that you can celebrate during your future – many, many – birthdays to come.
All quotes in this post are from this site. Thank you!
Before you go, check out this pdf with all the swaps that can help you live the healthiest life possible by optimizing your nutrition and detoxing your environment and skincare.
Make your body inhospitable for cancer once and for all!