Anniversaries mark the progression (if not progress) of our life’s journey. Birthdays are the most obvious. If we’re married, wedding anniversaries are another. And if we’re parents, the birthdays of our children.
Many public anniversaries also tend to be dark ones. Events that indelibly sear into our brains exactly where we Americans were and what we were doing at the moment we first heard. December 7, 1941 for the “greatest generation;” November 22, 1963 for us older baby boomers; September 11, 2001 for anyone who was not a very young child on that day.
For many of us, there is another dark personal anniversary: the day of our cancer diagnosis. There is something about this disease’s malevolence that ensures we are unlikely to forget the time, place, and circumstance when we heard a variant of the dread words, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.” It may have been in a doctor’s office or worse, heard over the phone, where there was not even the possibility of a sympathetic expression on a human face.
I write this a couple of days before the fifth anniversary of my own diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. The date: January 22, 2009. The time: approximately 11:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. The place: an exam room at Pacific Urology in Walnut Creek California. The words: “Craig, you have a nasty cancer.”
Five years. 1826 days. I count this anniversary in days rather than years because since that morning no day has passed without the realization that I have cancer. Initially, that awareness occurred immediately as I emerged out of sleep’s unconsciousness. As time has passed, the reminder now comes a bit later in the day. Or it comes as a hot flash caused by the after-effects of treatment. But the thought, “Oh, right, I have cancer,” never fails to occur at some point every morning.
I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially for those of us diagnosed with a Stage III or Stage IV cancer for whom cancer in remission (as is my current state) can return at any time—often more virulent than before.
But there’s an upside as well. As we “cancerians” are wont to say, this daily “anniversary” also celebrates the fact that we’re still standing on the right side of the grass. For me, anyway, the thought that occurs right after that daily “I-have-cancer” wake-up call is gratitude to God for the gift of another day.
Every anniversary—happy or dark—is a marker that reminds us we are not here forever. But there is none more efficient than cancer’s daily reminder: we are mortal beings, here only for a relative instant.
In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, an Australian singer/songwriter, who spent time providing palliative care to dying men and women, writes that the number one regret of those near death was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Herein lies cancer’s anniversary gift. As I have reminded my healthier friends from time to time, the author of Ecclesiastes said it best: “all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” I just happen to be better informed of how I may be making my exit. It is in this daily reminder of my mortality that I gain the courage to live true to myself, which for me includes living true to the man I believe God has asked me to be—and to do.
That means doing things I would not have risked in my pre-cancer life. Minor acts like getting a tattoo. Or traveling to Washington to ask my Senators and Congressman to support cancer research funding. Or giving public talks about an all-too-common cancer whose treatment among other things made me a eunuch. Or coming alongside my friend Bill through his final days as he struggled with this relentlessly cruel beast.
Perhaps perversely, and certainly unexpectedly, a diagnosis of advanced cancer has brought a freedom I never really experienced in my 62 years prior to that diagnosis. That is where this anniversary holds its deepest meaning: A daily marker not just that I am still alive, but that I am more fully alive than ever.