by Laura McCracken
Sometimes talking about having lung cancer can be hard for me, because I try to live life normally and not think about it all of the time. However, the awareness of cancer is carried with me every day, no matter how distracting life can be. Taking medications, aches & pains, and online communications with other survivors, remind me every day that I’ll never totally fixed. However, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up, and feel defeated by my fate. I’ve been so lucky in so many ways that it’s not hard to keep pushing forward. From the moment you are diagnosed with cancer, you are a survivor, no matter how long or short your fight is.
Due to advances in medicine, in many cases cancer is being treated more often these days as a chronic condition, rather than a death sentence. Living with cancer is becoming more of a reality for many people, especially young adults. If I had the lung cancer that I do even ten years ago, I would have probably be dead by now, but there is hope now that I have many years ahead of me. When you are diagnosed with cancer in your 20′s or 30′s, and over time you are able to maintain it with medication, you stop thinking that you’re terminally ill and can start thinking about actually having a future. After two years of having stable health, I started wondering to myself, “What am I going to do with the next 10, 20, or even 30 years of my life?”
When I was diagnosed with incurable Stage 3B lung cancer in December of 2007 when I was 30 years old, suddenly all of the procrastinations of my life were sudden regrets. I had to make a list of the most essential things I wanted to do before I died, like visit Japan again, or make art again. Four years later I’m still here and living life as normally as possible. Of course some days are better than others, and the illness is always lingering the back of my mind, but more often than not I try to not let it hold me back, preventing what I feel compelled to do.
I am able to ride my bike again, and even rode 75 miles in one day during a charity even this past May of 2011. Keeping active and involved with other people keeps you in touch with the world, and the more I move – the better I feel. It was slow process to get stronger, starting with taking walks, stretching, and breathing exercise. Now I’m able to exercise regularly, work a full time job, take care of housework, travel, drive a car – all things I was worried that I wouldn’t ever be able to do again. Though of course I’m one of the lucky ones that could raise my cardio abilities, but because of great treatments available, more people like me are going to be able to accomplish the same things.
When death is staring you in the face, and you try so hard to live life to the fullest, you really realize that the most important thing in life is friends and family. If you don’t have a good support system, then it can be pretty difficult to push forward and thrive. Joining support groups, going to meetings, joining charity, and attending events really helps you keep in touch with a sense of community and understanding.
The one thing that I thought would never be possible though was to date again. I had pretty much resigned myself to a fate of being a spinster, and not feeling attractive to a partner. Dating again after being diagnosed with cancer can be a hard step. There are many stigmas attached with cancer, especially with lung cancer (even if you are a non-smoker like myself), so I was terrified of trying dating because I though that I would have to constantly have to fight to prove that I was “normal”. However I knew for my mental health and self-esteem, I was determined to try though to at least have a social life again.
I started hanging out socially again with friends, and going on “friend dates”, which helped me get back into the swing of being social, and raised my confidence. I was insecure at first in 2009 when I first started going out again, because my hair was still barely growing in, and my skin was so bad from medications. Especially for a female, when you lose your hair and your look changes so much, it takes a while to create a new image of yourself that you can feel comfortable with. Making myself jump in the pool again and realizing that no, not everyone is staring at me, and no one knows that I am sick, really helped me get used to creating a new sense of self-worth.
From 2009 to 2010 had gone on a few dates, and even had a boyfriend briefly, but due to my insecurities and poor choices so it didn’t last long. I didn’t have much hope or expectations of anything really meaningful or worthy of a long-term relationship. I still didn’t have the right mind-set that anyone could really want to be with me, because of my illness. Constant worry if men would accept me totally, with scars or medication side-effects, or stick by me when I have to deal with health problems, all kept me from really feeling deserving of a healthy relationship. Cancer can definitely be some very unsexy at times, and might be too much trouble for the average person to deal with. It took a lot of soul-searching and decided that being in a real long-term relationship was something important that I just couldn’t live without. Why couldn’t I find a good person. There was no good reason why I had to live the rest of my life alone; only material skin-deep reasons that I knew didn’t matter to everyone.
By the summer of 2010 I was feeling more confident about my looks and feeling stronger, so I decided to try dating again. It was concerning to me about how I should present myself in an online profile, and decided to be very honest, but keep positive. I didn’t however want to present any false illusion that my life was perfect, because no one is perfect. Many people on dating profiles try to create a fake glossy image, or put way too many expectations on other people, but wise people can pinpoint the fakes. You don’t want to attract a fool that is easily swayed by fake advertising anyway, so don’t even try it. I was tired of the usual bar scene, and the whole thing was very exhausting to me physically and spiritually. I needed to find someone who was grounded, healthy, positive, and wasn’t caught-up in materialistic pursuits. I tried to look for someone that would be good for me, and good to me.
I debated about how much information about my cancer history to share with a guy at first, because they might not understand, or pass judgment before they really knew me. On my first date with my boyfriend, I decided to just be honest, and be myself – and not to create any illusions. When I realized that I really liked this guy, I worked up the nerve and dropped the dreaded “C word”. Often people say wait a few dates to mention it, but I didn’t want to waste our time if it was a deal-breaker. To my surprise though, he didn’t think it as an issue. However I tried to choose someone sensitive and kind, so maybe that helped. I was very wary at first, but after a while, I realized that he really was comfortable with me and my illness.
Maybe because I’m at the age where many people my age or older have already had some sort of trauma and major life experiences, they have already learned not to sweat the small stuff. People can learn from past mistakes, and it can put into focus what’s really important in life. Older and wiser sometimes really is true, and people learn not to have unrealistic expectations from other people. I certainly didn’t expect someone to be so compassionate and understanding so such a big issue in my life. Being sensitive to the limitations and needs of another person can be tricky, but honesty and empathy goes a long way.
October of 2011 I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary with my boyfriend. It’s the longest relationship that I have had since college, which amazes me. I never knew it would be possible to find a man who is so understanding, loving, and not swayed by the fact that I don’t know how long I have to live. His attitude is “we never know how long we have here on earth”, so we just try to make the most of it.
I was worried at first that perhaps my boyfriend didn’t totally understand how ill I had been and how unsure my future is. So, early on into our relationship when I knew things were getting serious, I took him with me to one of my oncologist appointments so he could ask any questions. After getting more information, he really understood the disease and my situation, but actually felt more confident about my outlook for the future. It’s good to have someone else on my team. He has helped me become more confident and healthier mentally and physically.
It is possible to love again, and have a real connection with someone special. I consider myself very lucky, however being brave and keeping a good attitude has not only helped me battle cancer, but also conquer love.
Laura is participating in Breathe Deep DFW on November 12, and will be one of the survivor speakers that morning. Join Laura on November 12, or check the LUNGevity website to find a Breathe Deep event near you.