I was on a course recently where we were asked to introduce ourselves by sharing a memorable date. With a sinking heart, I thought frantically - When did I pass my driving test? Move into my own home? I thought about my first date with my partner - 13th February, twenty-or-so years ago, but really, who wants to admit to having the equivalent of their wedding anniversary on Valentine's Day? (Reader, I didn't marry him).
My inner voice cried out a date so loudly that it drowned out anything else I could think of, but it felt like a shameful secret - 17th June 2009. I didn't want to share it.
The day began unremarkably enough. I remember wearing my tatty Earl Jean jacket and an Urban Outfitters t-shirt (I've never claimed to be a fashionista). My partner and I were finally going out without our two year-old daughter. We badly judged the timing of our travel arrangements and I remember my mounting hysteria as we half ran, half walked to arrive one minute late for my appointment, breathless, hot and sweaty. I remember the agony of the packed waiting room, the atmosphere thick with anxiety. I remember the ultrasound probe's ominous pause over the thickened tissue under my left collar bone and that, a mere three hours later, the waiting room was deserted apart from me and my partner. Most of all, I remember hearing the Consultant's words, "You have breast cancer."
I've lost count of the landmarks that followed that first, fateful day: the countless surgeries, the first day of chemotherapy, the last day of 'active' treatment, the day I found out I had a BRAC1 mutation, the day I was told that my cancer was back. The days of my illness are strung together like beads alongside the milestones of my daughter's life: her first day at nursery, her first day at school, riding her bike for the first time. Life doesn't wait for you just because you're ill and cancer is a ghostly figure which hovers in the background of so many memories. When I cry (if I dare, that is), there are tears of happiness that I'm alive and present to witness these precious moments, but there is also an unspeakable anguish that only comes with the knowledge that all things end.
By my calculations, I'm now seven years and five days on from my first diagnosis of breast cancer, four years and three months on from a recurrence and three years on from my last major surgery. So how do I feel? Of course I'm intensely thankful - I never forget that for now I'm one of the lucky ones - and there's a heady sense of exhilaration that comes with having endured the modern-day equivalent of the twelve labours of Heracles. But, it's also a time of year which stirs up feelings of sadness and guilt, threatening my oh-so-carefully constructed defences. That old refrain, 'I'm Fine,' becomes a mantra to ward off the bad dreams which take me back to a time in my life forever associated with fear, reminding me that whether I like it or not, I'm still vulnerable. The 'future,' which once represented opportunity, now symbolises uncertainty - What if my cancer comes back? Do I consider that two-year MA course? Is it worth re-starting my Pension?
According to Cancer Research UK more than 352,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year and I'm willing to bet that almost every one of them could tell you the date they found out they had cancer. There's a growing trend, I've noticed, to commemorate the 'cancerversary.' But how do you mark the day you were confronted with your own mortality? In the early days, when I still thought I was invincible, it was a good excuse for a special dinner, or a treat, but since being diagnosed with cancer for a second time, I've found myself cringing at what seems like arrogance. I feel almost superstitious about calling any attention to my good fortune - I don't want to jinx myself. What I've learned is that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to feel. If you want to have that holiday of a life-time, or a wild party, then go for it (just try not to worry about whether it's 'safe' to drink alcohol - another story). Or maybe, like me, you prefer to simply raise a quiet toast of thanks for another year of life on our beautiful planet, a blue dot floating in a vast universe of space and time. And as for next year, on the 17th June 2017, I plan to celebrate Icelandic National Day instead!