Happy birthday to me!

Hello! Thank you for all the birthday wishes! I had a pretty good day, all things considered.

I usually try to blog on my cancer blog on or near my birthday. I’m 35 today. It is paradox to feel both so old and too young at the same time. I am often the youngest person in the room, and I often feel most comfortable that way. It’s hard to talk about the accompanying experiences of cancer with anyone who doesn’t have it, but it’s even more weird to talk about it with people who are just living an entirely different phase of life, where death seems far away, unpredictable, and relatively unconcerning. I like old people right now. I hope to be one some day!

In any case, I don’t have THAT much to report. I’m in the dregs of cancer treatment. My treatments are on Thursdays. They take all day, and I’m usually pretty tired through the weekend. I’ve got about seven or eight more weekly chemo treatments. After that, I get about a month off. I’m going to rest a bit, and go to London to attend the International Conference of the Learning Sciences. I’ve never been to London, and it’s been such a beacon through all of this–a real, grown-up professional opportunity to learn about learning from some of the smartest people in the world. After I return, I get a week at my cabin with my kids. Then, I come home to start 28 days of radiation. After that, I’m trying to get into a clinical trial that gives me a type of pill, called a PARP inhibitor, so that I can avoid another recurrence. The days of an “end” to my cancer treatment still seem far away.

Since it’s my birthday, I hope my reader will indulge me in one realization I’ve come to in the past few months. I have resigned to the fact that I am going to die sometime, hopefully not soon, from breast cancer. I don’t want to alarm anyone- I think it’s going to be a long time before that happens. I’d like fifty years, but I will settle for twenty. I realize that by writing this, I might make people sad. It makes me sad to think about a shorter life than I might have anticipated. However, for one, my prognosis at this time doesn’t indicate any immediate danger, so we can relax. But truthfully, I have been afraid of dying from cancer for as long as I can remember. I honestly cannot remember a time where that was not a whirring in the background of my life, not even in my most vital times. I have tried to outrun it, in my early twenties. I’ve tried to outsmart it with genetic testing. I’ve been as vigilant as a person can be about catching cancer early enough to treat it. All of these things have contributed to my survival, and I am grateful. But, I am exhausted from worrying about and trying to avoid death from cancer.

So, I’ve been taking time to think lately, about what life might be like if I did only have a limited time to live. Which activities would I continue? Which ones would I allow to fall away? The good news is that I wouldn’t change most of what I do. I wouldn’t change my career, or my dissertation, or the lines of inquiry I’ve chosen to pursue. I wouldn’t change where I live. I would choose my husband again and again. I wouldn’t change the amount of time or energy I get to give to my children. I wouldn’t change my family. I wouldn’t change my friends. I would DEFINITELY CHANGE the amount of time I spend getting pumped full of poison, but at this point, the benefit far outweighs that cost. I will watch very carefully to make sure that is always the case.

The only real thing I would change about my life is the amount I fear death from cancer,  the emotional energy I expend trying to manage that fear, and then the cover-up work I do to act like that fear doesn’t rule my life.  It’s exhausting to pretend like I’m not carrying death with me everywhere I go, and so I’m not going to pretend anymore. I think we all carry death everywhere we go, but it’s a privilege to be able to tuck that fear somewhere appropriate and unobtrusive, as if in a purse. That is not a luxury afforded me, and truthfully, I don’t know that it ever has been. So, I give up! I liberate myself from the expectation that I have to act in public like we aren’t all going to die, or that I’m not sick, or that sad things happen all the time, each day, right within the relationships that make life meaningful.

This acceptance of my own death, and what it means for my life, has brought me more peace than anything I can ever remember. I am NOT A FAN of people holding up illness or other hardship as like “steps in a journey” or “a process of improvement”, mostly because I think this developmentally-oriented talk often becomes a shame stick with which we beat ourselves, a judgy, well-intentioned, thing to say after we perceive ourselves as “having come through” whatever bad thing. You cannot invoke the concept of progress without invoking a goal, and my whole point here is that the goal is not at the end of this life we’re living, it’s now. It’s now, even if you’re watching Netflix too much, or working more than you’d like, or sitting in traffic. We’re not really in a ton of control about how we spend our time, and I’m just now becoming ok with this. For me, this peace with my own death, even if it ends up as momentary, feels like a sad, beautiful treasure that I might get to keep for the rest of my days. I’d like to learn how to wear my own mortality like a necklace around my neck, a jewel that doesn’t weigh me down, there for all to see.

So, this is 35. My mom says I was born old, and it seems she is right. I used to mind this about myself, and now I don’t. Old is very good.

And now, please enjoy this song I enjoyed on the way to my parents’s house today. It felt great to listen with the windows cracked and the sun shining, my kiddos laughing in the backseat.

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