rebuilt it doesn’t matter, as long as there is still life. Then silence, with an occasional note to friends and family that s/he is still here with us, still fighting. More silence. Perhaps only one week passes, or two, or maybe a month. I’ll check in on his or her Facebook page if there is one. I’ll see comments from friends and family on the wall, words of encouragement and support. But there will be nothing from my friend, who’s been fighting the most awful of fights. Then, all of a sudden, I’ll get the email from Karine at Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC). The subject line always tells the receivers to open the email when we have some quiet time, and we all know. Another one of us has passed.
It’s not a club that you ever want to be in, but if you must, belonging to this club will be life-changing. Of the 20 of us cancer survivors and patients who attended YACC’s Retreat Yourself 2009, four have passed away—one in five of my cohort in the last two years since the retreat.
Emilee, age 32.
Ann-Marie, age 25.
Caio, age 23.
Earl, age 23.
When you are part of a group that spends some concentrated time together, you walk away with memories of the fun stuff that happened in that short time, like sitting around the camp fire telling funny stories or the talent show where we all made asses of ourselves and have the pictures to prove it. You carry the memories of the bonding and confiding about your innermost thoughts and fears in a safe space. You don’t think that the person sitting beside you during meditation or circle is going to die soon. You think that everyone’s made it, everyone’s here, and everyone’s going to beat the odds and be here for a very long time.
But of course, that’s not true. It hasn’t been true in the two years since I attended the retreat. I have the good memories, and I cherish those deeply. But when I wake up to one of Karine’s emails, I have fear—who’s next? Will it be me? Will it be someone I love? . . . I have sadness because look, this is what is particularly sad about young adults getting cancer—they are young, they are just starting their lives. And now, when one of them dies, all that potential, all that spirit and drive—gone.
And I have survivor’s guilt, big-time. I am sitting here with my infant daughter, watching her play and kick and learn how to grab. She sees me sitting beside her, and she beams with joy and love. I tell her that her older brother and sister will be home from school later on, and we’ll all play with her. I know that when my kids come home, we are going to look at craft books and make some felt toys. And I told them at breakfast this morning that I’m going to teach them how to use my sewing machine by making cloth napkins. I get to have this life. But my friends who have passed, it’s over for them. And their loved ones—their life partners and parents and siblings—they will never experience life with them again. They must face a new reality of how to live without. Thinking of that kind of loss brings me full-circle back to the fear I first experience when I see an email from Karine in my inbox.
Having had cancer and having friends pass away from cancer, I cannot stress enough how fragile life is—and how that fragility is to be understood and appreciated. Most people my age aren’t faced with their mortality, and they are blessed to not think about dying until an older person in their family passes, probably when it is “their time” to do so. This is one of the reasons I often compare cancer diagnosis and treatment to going off to war. You don’t know how you will change, how you will come back, or even if you will come back. You don’t know how many friends you will see fall. But you know that if you survive, you will never think of life in the same way ever again.
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