I’m up for parole.
Every six months, I have to check in with the authorities, and they tell me if I’m good for another six or if they’re going to have book me back into the system.
A few weeks before my appointment, I notice that my anxiety rises. The stakes are high. I know what it feels like on the other side, and I don’t want to go back. In fact, I’m not sure I’d survive it.
As soon as I check in, a whole team of people look me over. They ask me personal questions, even strip-search me — from the waist up — and then, after they review results and confer, a representative comes out and tells me if I get another reprieve or not.
It’s my bi-annual mammogram and checkup, the standard of care for triple-negative breast cancer after the year of active treatment ends.
Living under the cloud of cancer feels surreal. Now that my hair has grown back, my muscle tone is strengthening, and I’ve regained the weight I lost during chemo, I look and feel healthy. But triple negative breast cancer is nasty, and it wants to come back.
When I was diagnosed, my doctors told me I had a 40 percent chance of its returning, and if it does come back, it’s probably going to be fatal. On the upside, if it doesn’t reactivate within five years, it likely never will.
So I’m either going to have a normal lifespan like everyone else, punctuated for the next few years with mind-boggling checkups, or I’m going to die soon with little notice.
I am an optimist, and looking on the bright side comes naturally to me. But even an optimist has to admit my statistics are sobering.
From time to time, I find myself calculating how old my daughter will be at certain milestones on my cancer continuum, though I know that if I dwell on it, it will drive me crazy.
My weird situation reminds me of the story of King Dionysius, who was surrounded by the luxuries of royalty. One of his subjects, Damocles, envied the king and yearned to trade places. King Dionysius let Damocles take over the throne, but first, he positioned a dagger over his head, held up by one thin horse hair. He wanted his subject to realize that kings have to grapple with life and death decisions, and despite opulent surroundings, being the leader is difficult.
Checkup: Dagger overhead
Damocles, transfixed by the life-threatening sword, begged to have his old job back.
Unlike King Dionysius, I’m not surrounded by luxury, but sometimes I do feel like I live with a dagger over my head, one held in place by a thin thread.
In many ways, knowing that I might die soon is an unpleasant way to live. But — stay with me here — in other ways, it’s liberating.
I know now that I don’t have the luxury of wasting time and mindlessly letting days or even years slip away unexamined. Pettiness is out of the question, not because I’m above it but because I can’t afford it. I have better things to do.
This shift has helped me foster a more profound awareness of priorities, of the importance of spending time meaningfully. I am less likely now to stifle a generous impulse or to pretend to listen when I could be genuinely listening. I want to take better care of my family, myself, and my community to the extent that I am able. In short, I want to learn and apply life’s Big Lessons while I have precious time.
Cancer and these confounded six-month checkups have prompted me to claim time to pursue goals, pursuits I no doubt would have put on hold without my diagnosis. In this season of my life, I find that my questions are deeper and my answers more satisfying.
If you had six months before your next meeting with my parole board, what would you do?
I invite you to join me in celebrating life to its fullest, one little moment at a time.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.