8 Years and Counting!

by Brenda Bannon


March 31, 2009

As March ends and April begins, I realize that I have begun my 8th year of knowing that I am living with GIST cancer, and life is good. Seven years ago, misdiagnosed with Neuroendocrine tumors and meeting with a local oncologist, I sat and listened to her . . . this doctor, this woman . . . calmly and quietly tell me I was going to slowly die and there was nothing she could do for me. She gently explained to my mom, my sister, my husband and me that although she would supply me with pain medication and other palliative care, I would slowly grow more and more fatigued, experience more and more pain, and would slowly deteriorate until I died. She didn’t think I would see 40. I was 36 at the time, with three sons, the youngest of which was 15 months old.

As most of you know, when we left her exam room and walked in silence side by side down the hall, I asked incredulously, “Did she just say I was going to die?” My loved ones quietly responded in the affirmative. After a moment, I retorted, “Well SHE’S fired! I can’t die!” In that moment, I decided to live. It’s the decision that every single person who hears those dreaded words is forced to make, even while still amid the chaos of his or her entire life being upended. Many choose not to make that decision at that moment, but in doing so have unwittingly opted to die.

I think of that day often, wondering how many cancer patients all across the globe have heard similar prognoses, believed them, and surrendered to them as if they were a death sentence written in stone. Since that day I have watched friends and friends of friends as they heard similar words . . . “it’s malignant” or “it is cancer” . . . and in the panic of wanting the offending disease out and gone rushed into surgeries or treatments without seeking a consult or second opinion with one of the many world renowned cancer treatment centers we New Yorkers are so incredibly fortunate to have within a day’s drive. I have also comforted their loved ones and cried tears of grief as they lost the battle against this beast we call cancer. Sometimes because the surgery that was thought to have had clear margins clearly did not. Sometimes because, like me, they were misdiagnosed by the local oncology team and treated for the wrong cancer. Sometimes because they decided the necessary battle against the cancer presented to them was less desirable than the choice of simply saying goodbye, letting go and going home.

After seven years, I still hate cancer. I’ve become a faithful advocate for anyone who is recruited into this war, using the knowledge and skills I acquired in my own battle to help others in theirs. After seven years, I still shed tears for those people whom I’ve grown to love along the way, who have lost the battle against the beast. Yet, after seven years, I have come to realize how immensely blessed I have been, knowing each day that I live with cancer.

Having cancer means living every day knowing that it’s a gift. We are all one day closer to the end of our life when we awaken to greet a new day, but most of us live in the wonderful world of denial, completely ignoring that basic fact. We assume that tomorrow we’ll greet the day as we did today. We take for granted that the people we know and love will be in our tomorrows as well. Very few of us ever question whether the loved ones in our lives will be there to answer our next email or phone call, we simply assume they will be. We plan for the future as if it’s a given. We live like tomorrow is already ours.

I am blessed to live gazing every day into eternity from its threshold. When I become angry with a friend or hurt someone for whom I care, I am acutely aware that I may not have the luxury of time to wait to repair the rift or apply balm to the injury. I know altogether too well that each sunrise and sunset is precious. I cherish the snowflakes as they dance in the cold winter air and I watch in wonder as a butterfly flutters on the soft spring breezes. The rain falling on my skin or the sun’s warmth on my face is different now than they were seven years ago. I enjoy them. I stop and notice them. My children’s laughter so fills my heart with joy that I am nearly always moved to tears. I no longer worry about how things might appear, and I take chances I may not have taken in the past. I say things . . . do things that other people – people who don’t have a cancer living inside them trying to kill them – will either delay or not say or do at all for fear of feeling foolish. I don’t care about that anymore. I feel things more intensely, cherish people more deeply, know the futility of “things” and the incalculable value of a simple smile or hug. Having cancer, living with cancer, allows me to remember that I am alive and what a precious gift each moment of my life is.

It’s sad, really. I mean, even if I didn’t have the cancer, I was not quite yet 40 when a stroke took part of my vision and made simply remembering things an enormous challenge. Those tiny emboli that showered my brain could easily have ended my life that day. What would I have wished I had said or done? What lives would I have wished I had touched? It’s sad because not one of us knows what the next hour might bring, let alone if we’ll have a tomorrow on this earth. I have been given an incredible, amazing, wonderful gift with this belly full of tumors with which I live and hope to someday defeat. And I’ve realized that having a 22” waist is nice, but not if it means I am not here to enjoy it. So I don’t mind my “pregnant” belly, as long as I can still laugh and love, walk and run and swim and dance. As long as I still have time to watch my boys and the other children in my life who I dearly love grow and learn and experience this wonderful life, and have the opportunity to influence them. As long as I can still hope for and dream of knowing that once in a lifetime love – that someday I will look into the eyes of my future husband and see my best friend, my lover, my life partner, the one who makes me better because he loves me and shares his life with me. As long as I can imagine what my grandchildren will look like and be like, and as long as I can hope to be here to hold each one as they are born into this incredible world.

No, my big old belly is a small price to pay for the intensity with which I experience life. God has given me a great gift. And when He finally heals me, when He finally gives me that waist someday, I pray that I never lose the lessons this cancer has taught me. I pray that I never stop gazing from the threshold of eternity so I might always remember the value of each moment of this life. May God bless every one of you, and may you not need the “blessing” of a cancer to bring you to the realization of what is important, what has value, what a miracle this thing is that we call life.

Blessings and love,