The five year mark on cancer survival is a funny thing. It feels significant and yet it means nothing concrete. Because it’s used as a milestone in survival rates, sometimes people think it offers assurance. If i can just avoid getting sick again during the next five years, 3 years, 12 months, 12 days… I will finally and forever be free of this monster that has been stalking me. That isn’t how it works, though. Cancer can come back for you anytime, and you have to live your life as well as you can in spite of it.
And for my mom, who in the last five years has kept having to wrest herself free again and again, there is not even the shaky hope that time means safety. We are, instead, almost assured it will be back sometime, might be back already, in fact, and is just waiting to announce itself again, disrupt everything again, and take away any scraps of hard-fought, necessary, delusional normalcy we’ve managed to gather together since the last time.
One of the harder things to remember is that we are lucky there have been so many agains. It’s come back again 4 times. She’s staved it off again each time. Again means she’s still alive. I didn’t know it, 4 years and 10 months ago when she was diagnosed, but the survival rate for her stage of bile duct cancer has roughly a 6% 5-year survival rate. And so five years actually does mean something to us. Making it to 5 years gives us no guarantees, no relief from the monster. But it means we got very, very lucky, and we’ve gotten time almost nobody in her position gets.
Today mom loaded up the casita camper we bought for her and headed to New Mexico. She’s always wanted to take an rv around and explore the US, but first single-mother-dom got in the way and then cancer threw itself in there, too. My mom has had to fight her entire life. She used to duct-tape her shoes so whatever money there was went to the things my brother and i needed. She jokes around with the anesthesiologist before she gets wheeled into surgery, every time. She is braver than I could ever imagine being capable of.
Watching her drive off, I felt a little like an anxious parent watching their child go off on their own for the first time, except that in my case i’m very hopeful she’ll join a commune, get a boyfriend with a motorcycle and experiment with soft drugs.
There have been a lot of rough days over the last almost five years, but this is one of the good ones.