What if you thought that today would be your last “normal day”?

“I am a cancer survivor.”

That sounds like a definitive statement, but being a “survivor” is anything but defining. It is actually a misnomer because “surviving” something lulls you into a false sense of security that something is “over” – that it had a defined time/place, which has expired. With cancer – particularly a cancer that traveled through the lymphatic system before being diagnosed or treated – that is not true.

More accurately, I personally am “in remission,” meaning “lack of active cancer activity at this moment.” My real-life fear is no longer “occurrence,” but “relapse.”

“How will I know if my cancer comes back?” I had asked my oncologist 10 years ago, after an exhaustive regime of chemo and high-beam radiation that gave me the grace of “remission.”

“You’ll tell me,” he replied. My cancer flavor, which was late-stage before diagnosis of the deadliest and fastest-growing form of breast cancer, does not have blood markers. There is no ongoing lab test (as with prostrate cancer) to reveal whether the bugger is busy multiplying, multiplying, multiplying in my body.

“You’ll have a problem with your lungs, or a pain in your bones that won’t go away, because it would have moved to a new site,” the doc explained. “Then we’ll test, and that’s how we would likely discover it.”

The fine line between hypochondria and due diligence

I do not dwell on the idea of relapse, but I mindfully live each day fully and do not leave important things undone or unspoken “until later.” Or at least, that’s what I thought … until a recent relapse scare made me more closely scrutinize exactly how I was living each next day, when forced again to realize that any could be my “last normal day” before re-diagnosis.

The medical problem surfaced when I suddenly became aware of unexplained but significant bone pain at a site not easily dismissed as “arthritis” or “joint problems” in my leg. I did not rush to the doctor to have it checked because I felt a little superstitious. If I assigned meaning to it, would it become significant? (I do personally very much believe in the law of attraction in the universe.) So I decided to wait it out, deciding to believe I was stressing a bone due to posture or knee problems, etc., etc.

That decision was made about six months ago.

Then, a few weeks before my scheduled vacation with my little grandson this past July, I suddenly had very significant pain in my upper arm. Then pain in the bone of my lower arm. Pain so demanding that I dropped heavy things. To be able to sleep at night, when the pain intensified, I scavenged through my medicine cabinet for pain pills … but otherwise I kept mum about it with family and friends. I’d wait until after the trip to see a doctor, because if he wanted me to start chemo … how could I choose between a trip with Patrick and chemo? It was a decision I chose not to make in July.

Instead, I packed some outdated pain pills and used them when the rigors of travel caught up with me. I couldn’t carry a full suitcase, couldn’t walk very far without needing to medicate. And so, while on the trip, I became more and more convinced that I was in serious trouble – which made me want to hold that precious little boy even closer to me, and to give him the trip of a lifetime. One that would solidify me in his memory forever.

Meanwhile, in the couple weeks before the vacation, I also was emotionally drowning in a need to protect legacy at home and at work. At IB, I promoted Jon Konarske to associate publisher and trained him on functions he’d not done before. Then I delegated more responsibility and authority to him. I pushed new products ahead and involved the staff in planning, hoping to clarify my own vision for the magazine’s future to them. And I became obsessed with our company’s balance sheet, feeling a great responsibility to Bill Haight to leave behind a profitable enterprise – if not to sell to me, as planned, then to pass along to Jon.

At home, I ordered a tombstone for my brother’s grave. I visited family that I had not seen for some time, trying to say “goodbye” without saying it or worrying them. I made heirloom books for my children, and handcrafted items for my daughters and grandchildren. I spent time with my husband and our dogs, trying to make each second with them stretch as long as possible.

What I did not do was accept social engagements with anyone beyond our closest friends. What I did not do was say “yes” to meetings for which I could not discern how In Business or my family would benefit from my attendance. What I did not do was add layers of guilt or regret to my life, but rather, I cleared slates, did a lot more forgiving than I usually do, and lived the kind of life that was fitting of the kind of person I most want to be.

And, surprisingly perhaps, I did not worry about money – I didn’t spend more (or less) than usual, but the funds I had or didn’t have meant nothing to me. Legacy, for me, has nothing to do with cash on hand or in the bank or due to a credit card holder.

I did talk to my husband, who is my partner in everything I do or don’t do. And, after my oncologist ordered a bone scan, I talked privately with each of my adult children and to Jon and Bill, Joan Gillman and Donna Gray, Beverly Fontaine and Shirley Wright. That is when I asked these good friends to pray or to send me good energy or to just be there for my family, figuring I would not be in any condition to talk about it AFTER the results … if the message was cancer.

Now what?

A huge sigh of relief. After testing and analysis, it seems the pain may be a serious side effect of the ongoing “shield drug” I take – a chemotherapy that makes me more resistant to the cancer cells that continue to hibernate somewhere deep inside my body. I had been told to expect to stay on it for the rest of my life, at the expense of healthy hair growth, etc., etc., because it is the barrier I need in place to best prevent a re-occurrence. But I can’t function with severe bone pain so now I’m off of it while we rethink what to do next, which presents some psychological challenges of its own. I feel like I’m walking around without any clothes on, if you can imagine, waiting for the cancer to realize it.

So I guess I remain in limbo at present. And, during this ordeal, when it has become so very apparent how much I still rely on the expertise and guidance that my trusted oncologist provides, my company’s (outsourced) HR provider sent me an email saying it was “delighted to announce” that it had signed on with another insurance provider, effective almost immediately (Oct. 1). As a result, my doctors suddenly are “out of network,” as it doesn’t offer Dean coverage anymore.

I am furious over the cancellation of a policy that included Dean, and while I don’t sweat the small stuff, I do very much advocate for the big stuff. But that’s another blog for another day, as that rant has to cool down a bit more before I air it publicly.

Meanwhile, I’m ending this blog with the thought that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems, from the outside looking in. For example, living every day as though it could be a last day is a blessing, not a curse. So … if I can leave any legacy at all with you, dear reader, this is the message I would entrust this week to your heart and mind: Don’t stop at imagining the kind of person you want to be – become her or him while you still have the grace of time and health to do it. And I highly recommend taking each special child in your life (and also your partner) on their own odyssey trip, alone, just you and them. That is really what makes everything else all worthwhile.

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