No, it is not my birthday. No, it is not my wedding anniversary. No, we did not get that puppy I want, although Big Man, if you're reading this, if you come home with a puppy tonight then you will automatically win every argument for the next five years!
Today is my "Cancer-versary". It has officially been five years since my breast cancer diagnosis! I am entering my sixth year of survivorship today! I am now officially on the winning side of that 20% statistic that I think about every second of every day. My goodness, gracious how far I have come in the past five years! I get a little bit shaky just thinking about where I was on June 3, 2005.
I was standing in line at Starbucks. I had graduated two weeks before. I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. The greatest worry that I had was what to wear to my first day of work. I had just spent some time shopping on Newbury Street for cute shirts to go under my boring black suit jacket. I needed a coffee because I had been sadly unsuccessful.
Everything I tried on suddenly seemed so "juvenile". I suddenly felt the urge to shop at Anne Taylor or Talbots. I bought my first ever pair of shoes from Naturalizer. In college, I had never left hip, cafe-and boutique-filled Newbury Street, but post-college, I had the urge to drive out to visit a large suburban mall.
I hoped that ordering a skinny, double-shot caramel macchiato might wake me up from this real world induced fashion coma.
That is a long winded way of saying, I was a totally typical college student. I did not have a care in the world, but if you asked me I am sure I would say that I was suffering some sort of major crisis.
My phone rang. It was my mother.
Momma asked me where I was. I told her Starbucks. Without taking a breath, I started into my big thoughts on the joys of sensible Naturalizer pumps. She clearly wasn't listening. Whatever she had on her mind she was going to say and there was no stopping her. She interrupted my Naturalizer monologue. She never told me, "Honey, you should probably sit down" or "Why don't you call me back when you get home", or even, "Go into the bathroom where it is quiet and you can talk privately."
No, no. Instead, while standing in line at Starbucks behind a young mother with a MacLaren stroller and several Burberry and Petit Bateau shopping bags, my mother told me I had breast cancer.
I hung up on her saying, "Listen, I just can't deal with this right now."
Now, five years later, I can deal with absolutely anything and everything.
This time five years ago, I was in my brand new Volkswagen Jetta, a graduation gift from my proud parents, driving eight hours home from Boston to Baltimore with my mom. I had, for some reason, packed only three outfits and a bathing suit. Who knows why I thought I needed a bathing suit for chemo. I had quit my first job before I had even started and instead of living with my best girlfriends, I was in the process of moving back in with my parents.
On the long, Batan Death March that was my ride to chemo, I was having a conversation with my oldest brother about why I should or should not tell my college friends about my diagnosis.
"Bridge, this whole cancer thing is going to be really quick. Just get this chapter behind you, and you'll want to go back to normal. If you tell everyone, you'll never be able to go back to normal. Bump in the road, Bridge, bump in the road."
"Dude, Bro, I'm going to lose my hair. How am I going to explain that one?"
And just like that, my life was forever changed. Now, I tell my story to anyone who will listen.
Five years ago, my boyfriend of six months came to my parent's home for only the second time. He held my hand as my mother's hairdresser shaved my head. Here I am sporting my new look next to my dubious younger brother.
Five years ago, the GI Jane look worked for a bit, but then my hair started actually falling out. It came out in big chunks. The Big Man actually left a hand print on the back of my head after watching a movie at one point. The Big Man was both mortified and feeling incredibly guilty. So I quickly invested in an amazing wig.
Now, five years later, that brave young man who held my hand as I shaved my head is now my husband and my hair is long and fabulous.
The past five years have been a long and painful few years. Nothing has gone as I expected, but the greatest lessons of my young but eventful life haven't been learned in the college classroom; they were learned in the hospital room. So here is what I have learned up to this point. These thoughts are the legacy from my first five years:
Your parents are your best friends. Contrary to what many of you might imagine, they will not be here forever and their presence in your lives is a gift. Let go of any petty drama or family arguments. If caring for your ailing mother is grating on your last nerve, when you have the knee jerk reaction to speak sharply or get exasperated, instead take a deep breath and give a hug instead. Your parents are the only people on this earth who know you better than you know yourselves.
The best thing that ever happened me was moving in with my parents after graduation. I did not just live upstairs. I cooked dinner with them every night, my dad and I went on dates, I got to know my mom as a friend and not a mother. I learned about their first jobs and their graduate school experiences. I learned to turn to them for good and sound advice, and to actually listen to their advice rather than thinking I know it all. We became the best friends we always should have been for the first 21 years of my life because we found ourselves in the unhappy position where we were all clinging to each other like survivors to a life raft. Please, do me a favor and become best friends with your parents simply because you are lucky enough to realize how precious they are!
I’ve also learned to stop spending my time trying to plan my whole life and setting certain goals to attain. Do not measure yourself based on the accomplishments of your peers. Life is too short to wish it away. Reflect on all that you have accomplished as opposed to planning for the next accomplishment. Focus on tonight rather than planning for tomorrow. Turn off your phone, computer, tv.....Instead, let go and enjoy where you are in this very special moment. I know I will really enjoy "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" this evening. What are you doing tonight? Whatever it is, put your heart and soul into it!
When I visited a doctor and he ran his hands through his hair and said, “I just don’t know what to do with you.” At that moment, I was forced to take stock of my life.
I task all of you to spend some time today, in my honor, taking stock of your lives. Don’t take stock of your career goals or material possessions. Take a look at your character and at your relationships. Take a look at the friends around you, because at the end of your lives, your relationships are what endure even after you are gone. Your relationships and your character are what matter and they are all that matter.
I have spent the past five years intensely focused on the relationships with the people I love. It has been the best five years of my life. I am looking forward to the next five.