Call it Like it is: Maintaining the Will to Live
Musings from 21 Years of Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer
After this blog post, I’m done answering this question:
Are you a breast cancer survivor?
Done. Over. Fini-to.
People living with metastatic cancer of any type can refer to themselves as anything they want. Warrior? Great. Survivor? Fabulous. Thriver? Whatever floats your boat.
Yes, sarcasm flows in my veins but, really, I’m good with all of those descriptive terms. Go for it — for your own purposes but not mine.
These labels help inspire people who face life-threatening diseases feel empowered, strong, hopeful. Terrific. I’m happy they use these terms to overcome the dark thoughts in their minds that their illnesses will likely eventually kill them.
But not today. Today we live. Be positive. Be strong. “So stop being so morbid, Sandi, and just live. Be happy. Be grateful.”
Using labels like Survivor can matter when you discover your treatment has stopped working or the side effects of therapy are nearly impossible to endure. “I need to get over this and go on.”
Maintaining the will to live – that’s what it’s really all about – is important for ourselves and for the sanity of our family and friends. They don’t want us to give up and we don’t want to give up because of them. Never. Until we have to…and even then…we don’t want to stop trying to outlast cancer.
I lost my will to live one day.
In early 2017, after two years of brutal chemo bouts with Ixempra followed by Halaven, I found myself spending more and more time in my recliner. If I had to go to the bathroom, I’d wait until the last possible moment to muster up enough energy to walk 14 steps.
In between my frequent naps, I looked out the window. I saw neighbors riding in cars, walking their dogs and gardening. “I don’t have the energy to do ANY of that and my energy level is draining by the day. I don’t see an end to this.”
Then we received a much-anticipated call from my son. “The baby is here! He was born a little while ago.” My grandson.
And I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be there. Impossible.
My reaction? I sobbed. Ugly crying. Unstoppable tears.
This couple went through fertility testing only to find they would not likely conceive without IVF. During IVF, there were many ups and downs for my daughter-in-law. So many uncertainties. It was uncertain whether IVF would work, if the baby would survive through pregnancy, if the baby would be born with physical problems and even if the child would survive the birthing process.
Lots of tension. Lots of stress.
I was so relieved that my daughter in law was fine and the baby was fine. What a blessing!
Then my thoughts went here: “This baby will never get to know me.”
My daughter and husband were stunned by my tears, unaware of the thoughts in my head. My daughter looked at me and said “Mom, you’re scaring me.”
I thought about what she said and what it meant. She was afraid I was giving up. That I would soon die because I might say “No more.”
I scared myself. What happened to that urging inside of me that made it possible to wake up every day? What happened to my determination to slog through my 14th line of treatment until it stopped working?
Where did my will to live go?
Packed up and gone. I couldn’t locate it anywhere. AWOL.
I thought how calm, peaceful and wonderful it would be to fall asleep and not wake up again.
Then I thought, “Am I really finished here? Is this my last curtain call?”
It was at that point I called my insurance plan’s mental health helpline.
It took a few weeks to start sensing my urge to live again. But it happened. With therapy and medication. Now I feel more like me.
But I don’t feel like a survivor.
My daughter in law is a survivor of IVF. My grandson survived gestation and birth. Both are survivors of their situations.
To me, a survivor is someone who has been able to successfully walk away from a life-threatening event and goes on with life. Like the survivors of the Titanic. They got in lifeboats and were eventually rescued. Most went home. Many returned to their old lives. They didn’t get back on that ship except in their nightmares.
I’m still on the Titanic. I haven’t survived the event called “breast cancer.” I may be currently living with breast cancer but I’m not someone who has survived. I know my time is limited, even though I’ve beaten the odds of living past the magic five-year mark.
So, call me what you will if it makes you feel better to say it.
Tell me I’m alive because I have a positive attitude.
Tell me I’m alive because God isn’t through with me yet.
Tell me I must be doing something different to have lived this long with stage IV cancer.
But I know I’m alive because I still have the will to live.
Oh, and having a type of cancer that responds to current therapies helps a lot. A whole lot.