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The Holidays: Befores and Afters

by Emma VivianSurvivor, Breast CancerDecember 15, 2021View more posts from Emma Vivian

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on December 4th, 2018. I didn’t know it in that moment, but my life had been permanently fractured into befores and afters. Before I found the lump. Before the scan. Before the phone call from my doctor. Before I had a name for the thing in my breast. And then, after the moment when I heard the word for the first time — the word no one ever wants to hear. 

The morning after my gateway day, the first morning of what would hereafter become the ‘after,’ my husband and I drove to the clinic to pick up a hardcopy of my scans. A Christmas tree sat in the waiting room, its green needles no more real than the empty wrapped boxes sat at its feet. I felt empty too, alien, as if my insides had been hollowed out overnight. We picked up my scans and left the clinic, the CD of images gripped firmly in my sweaty palms. As we rode down in the elevator, the old lady standing next to us turned to me and smiled. 

“Merry Christmas, dear,” she said, with more tenderness than I knew could come from a stranger. And, I wanted to ask her — someone, anyone — will I still be alive at Christmas? 

Three winters have passed since that day, and each December I find myself reliving all the tiny traumas of that year. December fourth was the day my doctor called me at work and broke the news. December sixth I found out I may lose my fertility. December seventh I began injecting myself in the stomach so I could freeze my eggs. December eighteenth a port was fitted under the skin of my chest, and it all became real to me, because surely someone would’ve told me by then if it’d all been a joke. By New Year’s Eve, with my first round of chemo under my belt, I realiz—ed how hard things were going to be. How far my fall would be from the realm of the ‘healthy.’  

For me, as for many of us, the holidays are a time of rituals. I decorate my house with salt dough ornaments, wrap up presents with too much tape, dust off recipes for favorite dishes cooked but once a year. I still do all these things in the after-land, only now I find myself craving new rituals, because December no longer means only the holidays, but my Cancerversary, too. The Cancerversary looms larger than the other holidays, maybe even more important to celebrate. The holidays are about gifts and family and friends, days to be celebrated with everyone, but my Cancerversary belongs solely to me, and the people who helped me stagger through the hardest year of my life. It’s a time to remember all I’ve been through, and feel grateful for the people who’ve kept me alive. Although it’s a day of great joy, there’s melancholy, too. Grief for my before life, and a longing to come to terms with the after. 

I’ve searched for ways to transform my Cancerversary day into something I can hold onto, ways to mark the magnitude of it all. I’ve begun a new tradition of buying my Christmas tree on this day — a real tree, the fresh scent of pine in my living room, a reminder I’m still alive. I decorate it whilst listening to my favorite carols, and as I sing along, joy swells in my chest and my voice cracks with hope. Later, in the evening, I light a candle to remember all the loved ones I’ve lost to this awful disease, and the friends who no longer get to mark off their Cancerversaries on the calendar. I may not always feel it, but I know I’m lucky to still be alive. 

The end of December gives way to the promise of the New Year. In the before-time, New Year’s Eve meant resolutions for change. ‘New Year, new me,’ the saying goes. But, in the after-land, the New Year doesn’t inspire me to find a new version of myself. Instead, I’m compelled to find the things that might bring me closer to who I really am. The lesson so many of us take from our cancer is that life is fleeting. For me, the harsh light of this truth exposed how unlike myself I had been in the before-time. How far the line was between the life I wanted to live, and the life I was living. I worked long hours at a job I didn’t enjoy, my unmanaged chronic anxiety spiraling into frequent panic attacks, and a perpetual sense of dread lurked in my stomach. It’s taken me these three years to realize the thing that was holding me back was my fear of not being good enough. The fear had caused me to stray so far from the person I wanted to be. But in the after-land, the hope of who I could be became more powerful than my fear. I knew that if I lived, it was a chance to be brave enough to find the real me. The person who could be vulnerable even though it was terrifying. The person who wasn’t afraid of the darkness in this world — who knew it was as much a part of life as all the light. The person who did the scary thing instead of hiding away, because being brave enough to try scary things is the way I want to live my life.

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