What makes a cancerversary?
If you are fortunate enough to experience a cancerversary (anniversary of something cancer-related) you may know how emotionally complicated it can be. From the outside, it seems like it should be a simple concept and incredible milestone. For me it is has been one of the most complicated and emotionally challenging things about life after active treatment. When diagnosed, I longed for the day I could say I was 1 year, 2 years, and 5 years past my diagnosis. When I finally reached a milestone, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why me? Will this last? Is my celebration disrespecting everyone that didn’t survive?” What seems like something that should be simple and joyous felt complicated, guilt-ridden, and uneasy. I wasn’t sure what milestones made a cancerversary, let alone what to do with one; I just knew I didn’t feel like I thought I would.
I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 at age 28 (stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ) and quickly underwent a double mastectomy. Once surgery was completed, I anticipated a yearly cancerversary of my diagnosis with hope for a long, cancer-free life. Instead, 4 years later, I had a recurrence. Another breast cancer diagnosis, this time stage II invasive ductal carcinoma. I underwent chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and hormone therapy. I eventually completed my treatment, but added many more dates of significance: date of second diagnosis, last day of chemotherapy, surgery date, end of radiation, finishing hormone therapy. It wasn’t until I was asked, “What is your cancerversary?” that I started getting confused. What does that actually mean? What it does it mean to me?
I picked my last surgery date as my cancerversary, when (as far as I know) I could count myself as cancer-free. But then my original diagnosis date arrived, and I had more feelings than I expected. It felt notable too, and I realized that knowing I’d been alive so long after hearing the words “you have cancer” gave me happiness, frustration, anxiety, and sadness for those that didn’t survive. Then my second diagnosis date came up, followed by photos of me ringing the bell after the end of my chemotherapy. To add to my complicated feelings, I felt like I had too many days that were milestones and I was being greedy to mark each one of them as important.
As I sorted through my thoughts, I had to come to terms with the feelings that my celebrations diminished someone else’s life — that my joy was showing disrespect to all the beautiful individuals who died from breast cancer. The turning point for me was when I thought about each individual friend that died from metastatic breast cancer. Would they want me to withhold joy in their honor? The answer was a resounding no. I think they would want me to celebrate every moment of life — cancerversary or otherwise. When I close my eyes, I can imagine the cheers and hug I would have gotten from my beautiful friend Courtney when I hit 5 years with no sign of cancer. Life is about finding the happiness more often, not less; I think my metastatic friends would agree. I now understand that I can mourn them and feel gratitude for my own survival at the same time.
I also questioned my assumption that one cancerversary was allowed. If every milestone is an opportunity for joy, relief, happiness, or self-reflection, why do I have to stop at one? These notable days and periods of grief are my own and they can be whatever I want them to be. Why was I putting so much pressure on myself to be anything other than exactly who I am?
As much as I appreciate them, my cancerversaries are not composed of pure joy. They will always give me conflicting feelings. I have incredible gratitude that I am alive and that I am not hearing painful words, getting nasty treatments, or feeling awful. I am reminded of all I went through and continue to go through. I worry that if I celebrate too hard the cancer will hear me and come back just to spite me. The only thing that made this easier is time. I notice and feel my many emotions. I am learning to trust my body again. I am less fearful that celebrations mean that cancer will punish me for being happy and alive.
On June 29, 2021, I celebrated 10 years of life after my original diagnosis. Earlier this year I celebrated 5 years with no sign of cancer. There is no quota on the times I can find joy in my life, nor should there be. For every one of my cancerversaries, I cry and scream and dance in celebration of all I have been through. I experience joy, gratitude, and trauma all at the same time, and I think that’s fair. It makes me feel alive and honest. Owning my truth and celebrating my way is powerful, freeing, and the best kind of gift I can give myself.
Michelle McGree is 38 and lives in Helena, Montana. She was diagnosed with DCIS in 2011 and stage II hormone receptor-positive, HER2-receptor positive breast cancer in 2015. She participated in LBBC's Young Advocate Program in 2019.