The Ghost of Birthdays Past and Future

Today is my 33rd birthday. For me, birthdays have always been a day of reflection, though as a kid and young adult, the reflections included ideas like, I wish I had done better in school last year, or if only I’d had the courage to talk to that cute boy in Psych class, or maybe next year I will try out for cheerleading.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer almost five years ago, at the age of 28, my birthday reflections have been very different. I think about the future, about how long I will live – how many birthdays I have left until a recurrence. I wonder how many years I will be able to keep my breasts (I only had three lumpectomies) before I need a mastectomy? What are the chances I can beat cancer again? Will I spend the rest of my life expecting and worrying about a recurrence that never comes?

I also can’t help but reflect back to my 29th birthday. It was a real low point for me during treatment. I had no hair from chemo that I finished that spring, and was halfway through my 30-day radiation plan. The skin under my breast and under my arm was raw and peeling and so gross and painful. I was still tired, still foggy with ‘chemo brain.’ I wore a wig, which felt hot like a winter hat in June. I remember feeling very sorry for myself and thinking, “This is how my 20s are going to go out? Great.” I felt like a mess.

I find myself mourning that birthday every year. I know it’s only been four years, but I wonder when I am going to be able to let it go. To accept that my 29th birthday was nothing more than one of 33 birthdays – nothing more than one small disappointment in life. When am I going to stop wanting a do-over?

I think back to the despair and sadness, the fear and confusion that I felt during that time. I want to hug that sad girl and tell her not to worry. That things will work out. That everything will be OK. That the daily panic that comes from fighting for your life will eventually fade into the background. Most of all I want my 29-year-old self to know that eventually cancer would not be the first thing I thought of in the morning and the last thing I thought of before I fell asleep; that though the fear never completely disappears, it will not consume our life.

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