Important dates in your cancer journey can bring up a lot of emotions. Honor yourself as you commemorate these days in whatever way feels right for you.
Everyone I’ve ever met who’s lived with cancer remembers their date of diagnosis.
For me, it was September 18, 2014. That is the day I call my “cancerversary.”
You may be wondering, what is a cancerversary? Am I supposed to do something specific?
The first thing you need to know is there are no rules. There are many possible cancer anniversaries one might note.
Defining those days to celebrate or commemorate is personal and defined only by you, as they can trigger mixed emotions of trauma, wins, relief, joy, and fear.
After I was diagnosed with stage 3C invasive lobular carcinoma, I realized life around me goes on, despite feeling like my life was on hold.
I was diagnosed a week after my son’s 5th birthday and had a mastectomy following New Year’s Day. Chemo ended around the Fourth of July, and I finished radiation right before Thanksgiving.
For a few years, I associated those holidays with those various cancer experiences, and I didn’t like it. Those feelings have eased over the years.
Six years out, the main canserversaries I note are the date of diagnosis, the date of DIEP flap reconstruction, and the anticipatory date of completing hormone therapy.
I view each very differently.
The date of diagnosis marked the “great tumult.” It’s the devastating disruption on my timeline, where I crossed the line of demarcation into the never-same-again with no going back to my former life.
The real truth is, I will always fear recurrence on some level, cope with lingering chemo brain, and always be reminded of cancer when the tightness from radiation in my ribs, back, and shoulder makes itself known.
This cancerversary has been filled with joy for racking up another year of life, mourning the loss of my pre-cancer self, gratitude for modern medicine, and contemplating my existence.
My DIEP flap reconstruction anniversary is also a big one for me. I initially had an unsatisfactory implant reconstruction that left me very depressed about my chest for a couple years until I got an autologous DIEP flap reconstruction.
This surgery was life-changing for me and made me feel more like my old self. Having my curves returned to me gave me some emotional healing.
The date is a personal celebration of gratitude. Each year, I buy myself beautiful new bras, and I feel happy and fortunate.
The anticipatory date of stopping hormone therapy brings complex feelings of love and hate.
The hormone therapy drugs suppress estrogen in my body to reduce the chances of recurrence. I am thankful for this.
As each year with hormone therapy passes, I’m grateful and hopeful for another year of no recurrence. Yet I am aware that not all types of breast cancers, like triple-negative breast cancer, have this additional treatment option like I do.
But my gratitude gets mixed up in my frustration of hormone therapy side effects: muscle and joint pain, moodiness, fatigue, hair thinning, and sexual health challenges like reduced libido and painful intercourse.
I love hormone therapy for increasing my chances of survival, but I will be feeling celebratory when I am done with it — and maybe even a little scared.
As you move through life, it’s possible that your relationship with the important dates from your cancer journey may change. For example, my date of diagnosis cancerversary has been fluid and ever-changing.
A year out from diagnosis, I felt like a deer caught in headlights. What now? I just wanted to quietly move forward and not look back, to pretend it never happened.
By year 3, I was feeling reflective and proud of my endurance. I also had (and still have) survivor’s guilt. People in my community are still dying from metastatic breast cancer, of which there is no cure.
At year 4, I felt like if I were to pass my cancer walking down the street, I would nod at it and keep going.
At year 5, I was grateful and happy to be 5 years out, and mad at cancer for happening.
My most recent cancerversary, year 6, was a mix of the happy-sads. I was happy to continue watching my son grow and sad for the loss of my nipples, lingering chemo brain, and the side effects of hormone therapy.
This cancerversary always brings much contemplation; the existential angst is real.
Was I supposed to learn a lesson and have takeaways and silver linings or something? People ask me that all the time.
Six years out, I have acclimated to the new normal. I’ve learned to temper the beast that is the fear of recurrence. The hard things sting less. I feel more celebratory in my spirit.
Since cancerversaries bring mixed emotions, it’s hard to figure out how to honor ourselves.
I vacillate on celebration and commemoration all at once.
Somewhere along the way, I started giving some ceremony to my diagnosis cancerversary. I have it marked on my calendar as an official personal holiday.
On the day, I journal my feelings and list what I’m grateful for.
The mad and sad? I let myself feel that, too.
The last few years I’ve eaten with my son, sharing his all-time favorite meal. I derive much happiness from the fact that I am sitting there watching him enjoy a simple pleasure in life.
A word of warning: It’s likely your loved ones won’t realize it is your cancerversary.
If you’re needing something from them, in terms of support, share with them that you’re feeling triggered by a cancerversary or feel like celebrating. Whatever it is, be specific!
This September will mark 7 years out from my diagnosis, and I feel like marking the occasion in a more celebratory way with my loved ones over dinner, drinks, and dessert, just communing with them.
I know some people who feel like it’s a second birthday because they are alive, and they want a cake and confetti type celebration. Others take a bucket list trip somewhere.
However you want to do things and however you’re feeling is valid and right.
Don’t let anyone tell you how you should or should not feel, or if you should be in celebration or commemoration.
Don’t forget to honor your feelings.
Don’t be afraid of looking for the lemonade you made out of the lemons.
Don’t feel like you have to do anything at all unless it feels right to you.
Do mourn the hard parts if you need to.
Do give yourself credit for managing life after diagnosis.
Do connect with your breast cancer peers.
As BC Healthline’s community guide, I know nobody else gets the mixed feelings of a cancerversary the way community does.
You will not find yourself alone when you share that you feel happy, sad, angry, relieved, scared, and grateful all at once. The breast cancer community always gets it.
Whatever you do or don’t do, just be the human you are in the moment when the cancerversary comes up.
Acknowledging and giving some attention to your feelings on a cancerversary can be soothing and healing. Give yourself some big or small ceremony in a way that feels right to you.
Monica Haro is a San Francisco Bay Area native, where she’s presently raising her son, Christian. She’s the guide for the breast cancer support community BC Healthline, serves on the board of directors with Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), and has shown her breast cancer advocacy art exhibit with El Comalito Collective in Vallejo, California, the past 3 years. Coffee, books, music, and art make her happy. Follow her on Instagram or connect with her via email.