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Birthdays After Cancer

I recently turned 37. For many people, aging feels like something to resist. Gray hairs need pulling, wrinkles need filling, sagging body parts need hiding. 37 sounds sort of old to me; I'm now late thirties, rather than mid-thirties. Typing that makes me want to cry, but not for the reasons people might think.

I am afraid that I am not going to live very long.

With every birthday that passes, I think, "I should celebrate being alive! If I hadn't found my cancer, I probably wouldn't be! Yay!" But that's a double-sided coin. The other side is this: I made it to 37. Will I make it to 38? How much time do I have left?

Now, I know that this is all about mindset. Don't focus on the negative! Live each day in the present! Be grateful for every day! Every day is a miracle! And yes, that's true. It's a cliché, and it's true. No matter who we are, our days are not guaranteed.


But in the dark of the night — when all my nasty mind gremlins come out — I find myself ruminating on the negative and sometimes spinning out of control. The night before my birthday, I woke up at 4 a.m. worrying. I've been exhausted lately. There's a red spot on my chest. I've had a few tension headaches. I got my period for the first time in two years. Am I dying? Did the cancer come back? What if I'm not meant to live a long life?

After we found out that my friend Jessica was dying, she and I sat on her couch talking about what an asshole cancer is, and how we were both normal people, living our lives, until one day we were Cancer People.

"I said to the doctor who diagnosed me, 'this isn't part of my plan,'" I told Jess. "For some reason I thought the people who had cancer knew they were going to be Cancer People, like they knew they were the people who would die young. But it turns out, they were just regular people who had plans, and those plans were cut short."

She looked at me and said, "I guess it turns out I am one of those people, I just didn't know it." We cried then, and I'm crying now. It sucks. So hard. And cancer is an asshole.

In reality, anything can happen to any of us at any time. That is the nature of life. Whether it's a cancer diagnosis or a car accident, devastating things happen to good people who had no idea what was coming. The older we get, the more experience proves this to be true.

Figuring out how to live in spite of a total sense of impending doom is proving difficult. In some ways, it keeps things in perspective — which has caused me to make important life decisions like changing jobs, independently publishing a book, and making work-life balance a non-negotiable. I ask myself constantly, "is this what I want to be doing? Is this how I want to be spending my day? What if I only have a year left? Will I regret what I'm doing?"

Unfortunately, the answer is sometimes yes, I would regret how I spend some of my time, if I only had a year left. Every day I want to be in two places: I want to be at work, because I love my job and I love my co-workers . . . and I also want to leave work in the middle of the day to pick my child up from school. And of course, sometimes I am wasting my time worrying about dying, when I know it won't stop death and it sure isn't helping me enjoy life.

But as Lizzo would say, "that's the human in me." Cancer has done a lot for me, but it hasn't given me worry-destroying super powers.

About seven years ago, I went to see a psychic (hi Mia!) who correctly predicted pretty much every aspect of my life. Lately I've been thinking about part of my psychic reading, when she asked, out of the middle of nowhere, "Do you sometimes worry or get the feeling that you won't live very long?" At the time, I was taken aback. No, I did not get that feeling. She told me that in past lives, I'd died young, but in this life, I will live a long life and I don’t need to worry.

I have (possibly) been holding onto this prediction and praying for it to be true.

Yet I’m still having dreams that I live in a dangerous apartment surrounded by white supremacists and gang members and I’m trying to clean up an insane amount of trash in the bushes and I find a loaded gun. And that’s sort of how my life feels. Like it’s dangerous and no matter how hard I try to clean stuff up and make it nice, I might find something that could kill me, hiding somewhere unexpected.

My friends who are years out from their diagnosis and treatment tell me that this fear gets better with time. I’m looking forward to a time when every ache and pain I experience feels like a normal part of living and aging, rather than a sign of a recurrence.