When I was first diagnosed, way back in October 2010, a friend of my mum’s — who was and still is a breast cancer survivor — messaged me and gave me advice I’ve never forgotten. It’s also advice I give to anyone who asks how to manage a cancer diagnosis and all the shit that comes along with it. She said, “Don’t forget: while you’re in treatment, it’s your TIME and it’s YOUR time.”
I really took that to heart. Cancer treatment — and now, just plain the time after diagnosis and the time in continual treatment — is MY time. I own it. Having cancer doesn’t change the control I have over what I want to do with my time (barring when I have to, oh, I don’t know, show up at the hospital for treatment so I can keep having time) or the fact that the minutes, hours, and days of my life are still mine to live. And it’s my TIME. It’s what I have — really, it’s all I have, or all anyone has — so I better do something with it that I can live happily with. And it’s weird, because one of the most frequent comments I get is, “Man, I don’t know how you do it. If it were me, I’d just lay in bed and cry all day.”
But here’s the thing: when you’re diagnosed with a terminal or life-long illness, somewhere along the line something hits you. I spent my share of hours in bed (and, if I’m being honest, I still do) watching bad TV (I love bad TV) and over the top 80s sci-fi/fantasy action movies. When I don’t feel well — either because of treatments or because my newfound post-treatment pathetic little immune system takes a day off, the asshole — it’s pretty much all I do. But lying around basking in my imaginary life away from responsibility only can last so long. After awhile, I start to feel restless, even bored — and I start wondering how many more Law and Order:SVU plot twists at exactly the 52 minute mark (I promise, measure it) I can take.
So it hits you: Hold up, you fucker, this is my time.
So how do I do it? Well, like anyone else. Or, more specifically I guess, like any other late 20s literature graduate student with a horse and a only half joking goal to be the most proficient 5.9 climber at her gym. I get up in the morning (reluctantly — my body is convinced that the day doesn’t start until 11:00 am and who the hell am I to try and tell it differently). I drag myself, still half asleep, to the barn and do my shifts and work for the day and wander around the fields with my horse (and feed him way too many apples in the process). I bang my head against my keyboard on a frighteningly regular basis and pretend the outcome is a sufficient chunk of my dissertation. I write to friends — those with cancer and those without — and keep up with the people I love. I cook dinner for myself and Kai and only fuck up 10% of the time. I cuddle my cats — mostly against their will.
So it’s my time. And it’s not particularly exciting time, but it’s mine, and I spend it now pretty much the same way I’ve always spent it. And I’m fiercely determined to keep doing that — I always have been. Growing up, my mother called me a “bulldog” — I think in an effort to chastise me for being too loud, or too forthcoming, or too whatever — and I always took a certain degree of pride in that. I am a freaking bulldog. I stand up fervently for what I believe in — and I always have. I speak loudly. I live in bright colors and strong shapes — in the heavy presence of the world around me. I speak my mind, don’t often censor myself, but I also think carefully about what I want to say and to whom I am saying it. I could never, even for five seconds, be called a WASP or waspy, and if I ever hear anyone say the phrase “We don’t do that sort of thing” or any of its derivates to me again I may punch them.
“This was not an easy child to raise,” my mother also said of me. And that’s because my parents raised me — the daughter of a union president professor and an ABD wallpaper hanger. My brother, though it manifests differently, is largely the same way. Headstrong, stubborn, strong willed. Insightful. Sensitive. Willing to make mistakes. Willing to laugh.
My brother is kind of a touchstone for me. We are, in many respects, the retrograde of one another. I look up to him in the circuitous way only a big sister can. From periphery angles, from moving glances. With a deep seated pride nestled in a kind of love, the contours of which are so vast I can’t reach them. More often than not it is him I’m writing for.
But back to being a bulldog. I think it’s important — in fact, I think it’s good. Because somewhere along the way, being a bulldog took up the space that my body was reserving for paralyzing fear — the kind of fear that often accompanies this kind of diagnosis. I am frightened, a lot, but the bulldog in me snaps her teeth and growls at fear. And she doesn’t back down, or get quieter, or take a break. She can’t — I can’t — and so we won’t.
Charlene was, in many ways, a bulldog too. A sweeter one, and probably a more polite one, but she kept growling and demanding treatment to the very end. I miss her. I have a packet of chocolate Necco wafers sitting on my desk that she brought me my first day of treatment, the second time around. I imagine they’ll disintegrate long before I let anyone eat them.
So, I think, be a bulldog. Be difficult to raise, be loud, be insistent. Choose the direction your energy wants to take and follow it with the blinding fury of ten thousand suns. And learn how to harness that energy so that you can share it with others rather than burn them with your movement. Growl at the things that frighten you.
Be bold, bulldog, and mighty forces will come to your aid.