In my life before cancer, I thought 40 was middle-aged. But after hitting cancer twice, hitting 40 – and any age for that matter – never feels like I’m in the middle of anything, but more like I’m on the edge of something. The last prognosis I was given predicted that I had an 80% chance of 2-3 years before the cancer returned. It’s now been 4 years. Docs say that my odds of disease-free survival get better the further out I get, but who really knows? I mean, how do you know if your insides are closing in on all-clear status or running away from it? Some days I think maybe I’ve only got another good year left, and other days I think I’m definitely one of the 20% who outlive this cancer. The truth is that the size of the probability that’s used to label my cancerness isn’t what matters in survivorship, because nothing is 100%. Case in point, my first-line treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma had a 93% success rate, and I was told that I was in full remission. But that remission was false, and I quickly fell into the narrow 7% who fail first-line treatment.
Still, the number forty has been important in my survivorship. I lost 40% of my lung tissue – that’s just fact. Radiation pneumonitis was the culprit, a rare side effect that only occurs in about 5-10% of people who receive radiation treatments. So, forty meant permanent loss. Initially, the 60% of lung tissue that I had left was only working at 50%. So, I was advised to be realistic about living with permanent lung injury and chronic fatigue – remind myself that I only have half my lungs and no reserve of oxygen like the average person, say goodbye to my lifetime goal of running 50 marathons, and instead, resign myself to the thought that I would’ve probably eventually given that up anyway as I aged – not helpful, and definitely not something an athlete would say.
Now that I’m 40-years-old, 40 years means that I’ve lived long enough to improve that 50% function in my remaining lung tissue to 68%! I don’t know how exactly I bumped that up – whether it was yoga, LSD (long slow distance) walks, and/or mostly plant-based living. For all I know, my lungs would’ve improved much the same on Henny and couch potato status. But what I do know for sure is that it took years to get to 20% functional improvement. It took time.
Time is the linchpin to human experience that can’t be written on any bucket list, but it’s the only thing that I, and most other cancer patients, really want – not immortality, but to live for long enough. I still don’t know what “long enough” is for me, but 40 still doesn’t feel like it. The life that I have today is totally worth surviving cancer twice, and I want to keep on.
Daps to all the good people who made noise for me on my birthday, whether it was in-person, on social, or if you texted me a fly-ass GIF of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince saying, “Smile! Cuz this shit is real.” You all make everything worth it.