Spinning with my morning online spin class, I reflected on the mellowing colors of the trees beyond my bike outside my window — greens fading to orange, yellow, red, burgundy, and tan. October is my favorite month of the year because it’s the pinnacle of my favorite season of the year, autumn. I appreciate the slowing stillness of life, the squirrels and birds gathering and foraging, and the brilliant blue skies that contrast with the fiery maples that line the streets in my town. For me, October is a time of contemplation and remembrance. As it is my birthday month, I take stock of my days circling the sun this year, a particularly positive one for me with the launch of my memoir, Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists. I pause and think about how far I’ve come in the 4 years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I never imagined then that the dream I had of writing a book would become a reality. Most importantly, I remember family members and friends who lost their lives to cancer.
My quietude and the season’s burnished beauty clashes with the ubiquitous bright pink ribbons plastered on products from socks to shopping bags, on football team uniforms, and in my Facebook feed, all in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month before I had breast cancer. And having experienced it, I don’t need a bag of pink Himalayan salt potato chips or a banana with a pink ribbon sticker to remind me each October to be “aware.”
When I was diagnosed, I wanted a trail map, so to speak, to help guide me through the experience. In my search for one, I found thousands of books, many written by medical professionals, about breast cancer, its diagnosis, and treatment. I found celebrity cancer narratives. I found beautiful memoirs about the meaning of life written by individuals who died — from cancer. I found plenty of pink, inspirational guidebooks and journals. I didn’t find those books helpful. So I decided to write my own in the hope that when other individuals hear, “I’m sorry, you have cancer,” some of my experiences may resonate and help them.
In Again, I share in a frank, honest, and sometimes humorous way my dual cancer experiences and how life altering they were. My cancer diagnoses broke the timeline of my life twice. When I finished my treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1981 as a teen, I didn’t want to think about those months of having radiation therapy, being sick, and losing part of my hair. I didn’t want to think about how alone I felt. I wanted to go back to high school to my friends and activities. I put the memories of that time in a “box” labeled “Hodgkin’s 1981” and stuck it on a shelf in the darkest corner of my mind.
But 35 years later, when I heard those words, “I’m sorry, it’s breast cancer,” I knew that the life I’d had up to that point had ended. My new reality came with grief, struggle, pain, and incredible amounts of love and support as I went through a year of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and surgery. Yet, after I finished treatment, I found myself unmoored and anxious about recurrence. As I wrote Again and worked with an excellent psychiatrist, I realized that I’d lived much of my life in fear of cancer, and I had to confront those old fears that I’d buried for so long. Writing Again allowed me to heal. I also wanted to debunk some common misunderstandings about cancer, its treatment, and life after cancer. In particular, I wanted to share my long road back to sexual wellness, a topic that’s been taboo for too long, and make to clear that cancer never really ends. I know now I must live with lingering and latent uncertainty for the rest of my life, but I’ve made peace with my reality. And, having confronted my mortality, I better appreciate the beauty and grace in life’s most ordinary moments — the sun reflecting on the maple tree in my garden, the delicious warmth of the first sip of coffee in the morning, the scent of a summer thunderstorm, or even folding laundry or chopping an onion. I also like to think, though my family might say otherwise, that I’m better able to let go of many of life’s annoyances. I try to be fearlessly decisive about important matters and not sweat the small stuff.
Finally, Again gave me the courage to step out of my planned and ordered life and to begin a writing practice that’s led me to peaceful coexistence with life’s awe and agony. My story isn’t pink and doesn’t come with ribbons or “awareness.” But, I hope that Again will shine a light on what can be a very dark path, as so many did for me, to help guide others through their journeys.
Christine Shields Corrigan, 54, a two-time cancer survivor, wife, and mom, gives voice to the beautiful ordinary in her lyrical and practical essays. Her work about family, illness, writing, and resilient survivorship has appeared in a number of outlets. She was diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive breast cancer in 2016.
Her memoir, Again Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists, is available on Amazon and at independent bookstores.
A graduate of Manhattan College and Fordham University School of Law, Chris teaches creative nonfiction writing for an adult education program, provides writing workshops for cancer support groups, and serves on the programming committee of the Morristown Festival of Books. She lives in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Learn more at Christine's author site.