Essay by Shirili Green
Editor's note: In 2007, Shirili Green was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was just 33 years old. After years of treatment, including a double mastectomy, she discovered cancer had returned in 2011. It had spread to her liver and bones. The cancer, stage IV, is terminal. She writes about the experience of living with the knowledge that she's dying and her perspective on the life she has left.
It's been nearly eight months since my breast cancer made its return. Eight months ago, I was -- or so I thought -- a healthy survivor. Life was somewhat normal, occasionally interrupted by routine checkups and doctor visits. Though I was aware of the chances of recurrence, I was miserably unprepared for its vigorous come back. Just as my body and psyche were recovering from my first bout with this invasive disease, the cancer was silently spreading over my bones and nesting in my liver. It's a very elusive enemy, I've come to find out.
Four years earlier, I fought cancer for the first time. At 33, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). My breasts were removed and I went through an aggressive chemotherapy treatment to eradicate an unequivocally aggressive cancer. The invasion of cancer derailed my life, together with the lives of my family and friends. It sent a shock through my physical self, but it didn't stop there. It took everyone for a ride. Our lives would never be the same.
My daughter, Mia, who was just shy of her fourth birthday at the time, learned about cancer and its implications at that very tender age. Of course, at the time, we had one plan and one plan only: to fight and to win. My dear daughter inevitably became an integral part of the effort to rid mommy's body of cancer, and though we did all we could to protect her and provide a stable, normal routine, the cancer was fighting back, and it was insisting on making its vicious appearance. It took several forms, but most were expressed through the ugly side effects of chemotherapy.
In addition to frequent vomiting, there was the endless nausea and fatigue. Soon after I started chemotherapy, my hair fell out. My young daughter who used to play with my long, thick hair now had to get used to mom's bald, shiny skull. Derrick, my husband, who loved my hair, had to watch the woman he loves lose the physical attributes of her femininity. My father's face was filled with agony. My mother and sister put on a brave front for my sake. My friends kept saying I looked great, and though they clearly lied, it was a fib I was happy to hear.
In the next few months, my parents and sister cared for Mia as Derrick and I focused on treating and healing. For a while, the cancer made us think we had won, but we hadn't.
Nearly four years later, the cancer viciously came back. The diagnosis was shocking. Cancer on every bone from pelvis to skull. Cancer in the liver and cancer in the eye. Stage IV. Terminal. Just when I thought I had my life back, the heavenly jurors changed the verdict. Recovery is no longer an option. It's the death penalty this time around. I started to spin, but then I decided to fight.
I was outraged. This can't be! I've done everything I could! It wasn't supposed to come back. But it did, and I had to start living the rest of my life. I had no idea how to do so. How do I move on? How do I find the strength to wake up? But the next day, I woke up. And from there, life took control. I started chemotherapy for the second time, only this time, there wasn't as much hope. There was my indescribably strong will to live, but living seemed less likely and dying inevitable.
About a month after diagnosis, things took a devastating turn. My lungs and the sac around my heart were filling with fluid. It seemed like the end, but it wasn't. After cardiac surgery and a procedure to remove the fluid from my lungs, I began to see some light, and the chemotherapy began to work. Systematically, my body started responding to the chemotherapy, and hope began to rise. Then, four months later, another devastating blow. The cancer found its way to my brain. It spread so fast through my cranium that in four months, I went from no brain metastasis to having too many lesions to count. My brain was literally infested. Once again, we thought it was the end, but, thank God, and thanks to Whole Brain Radiation, it wasn't.
Life must be lived regardless of the cards we are dealt. I never thought I would have to deal with dying in my 30s, but I do. Every morning that I get to wake up, I have to remind myself that it may be my last day. And I want to live each day to its fullest -- I really do! But just as always, life dictates the pace. I've been dealt a death sentence, but for now, the show must go on! Yes, I am fighting cancer, and yes, I will eventually die. For now, however, I get to take my darling daughter to school almost every day. I get to sleep in the arms of my loving husband at night. I get to spend more time with my aging parents, and celebrate life with all those who are dear to me. Can I ask for more? I think so, but I must also be satisfied and fulfilled. The only alternative is to be miserable, and I refuse to go there. I'm determined to enjoy the rest of my life.
I'm still here, and I get to write, and read, and see the leaves turn. I get to change my tires to snow tires. I can go out to lunch and joke with friends (who continue to graciously compliment my appearance). I get to correspond with my daughter's teachers, and sign permission slips for days of fun. I get to see my dogs run in the yard, enjoying the golden falling leaves.
I get to snuggle with my daughter as I put her in bed at night, and sing with her and listen to her sing. I get to play board games with her, and watch her growing up. One day at the time. One day and another and another . . . I get to choose clothes at the store with her, and do homework every night.
I also get to be upset at times, and I even get to be disappointed and sad.
Most importantly, I get to be alive!
For now, I get to live my life.
~ Shirili Green