Remember when everyone in the oncology waiting room did a double take when you showed up alone so it was obvious you were the patient? Remember those sympathetic smiles because they were there for the same things but had grey hairs and weren’t trying to figure out how to get their son picked up from soccer practice? They had that “you’re just too young for this” sorrowful stare. Well in a stroke of random luck I’ve now survived long enough that when I go to a cancer center for my arbitrary visits to check in, I’m finally starting to fit in with the majority of waiting room demographic. Naturally, what strangers don’t know is they might be there for their first or second visit, but I have more than 17 years of participation, and every bit of that experience is bittersweet.
It’s the eve of my 50th birthday and while I no longer visually stand out in oncology clinics, I can’t help but realize that my son is just three years shy of the age I was when I was diagnosed with cancer. It’s as if I’m only just now comprehending how young I was when I was irritated that I couldn’t be anonymous in the oncology waiting room. Intellectually, I was aware that I was a young adult with cancer at the time, but I didn’t have to wrestle with some of the typical young adult with cancer specifics because I wasn’t in my 20s in college or just starting a career. I also didn’t have to wrestle with fertility issues because I had already had my son when I was 20. I was sort of becoming accustomed to being the youngest mom with a kid in the middle school class so that already made me feel older than I was.
Now, there’s no getting around it with creative math or negotiations in my mind—I am firmly entering into later middle age and I can no longer describe myself as a young adult who had cancer. I’m firmly in the zone of being “a middle aged person who had cancer when I was a young adult,” and in my mind there’s a definite distinction. Part of that distinction is that I still don’t fit with my peers. For instance, my lifelong grade school girlfriends are going through perimenopause, but I’ve been in surgical menopause for 17 years. Keep in mind if you are trying to relate this to what it was like for your mom or grandma, remember that if the average woman in the U.S. reaches menopause at age 51, they would be 68 when their bodies have had 17 years of naturally declining estrogen and the choice or ability to have some Hormone Replacement Therapy. So, in terms of the cumulative effects of menopause, again, I’ve got experience I wouldn’t wish on any of my peers. Now, I’m also entering a weird zone where I’m not sure if my aches and pains are post-cancer effects, effects of early menopause, or what every 50 year old feels like.
Speaking of peers and milestones, there’s literally nothing more exciting in the Young Adult Cancer Community than cheering and celebrating every milestone my cancer friends reach, whether that’s finishing college, getting a PhD, getting married, getting that dream job they wanted, having a baby (post-cancer babies especially give me such hope), buying a house after devastating financial impacts of cancer in your earning prime, seeing their kids join the military, becoming grandparents themselves, etc. But the real reason aging out of the young adult cancer group is so bittersweet or a bit melancholic is because while I know far too many peers from this group who are not going to reach these milestones, countless young adults I know haven’t or won’t be able to have children even if they were offered some sort of fertility preservation.
Karen can’t see how well boys are growing into great young men and won’t see them graduate from high school.
Ashley never got to see her daughter go to kindergarten.
Erin’s baby and toddler will never have any independent memory of her.
Sarah’s kids will remember her, but probably only their mom with an oxygen tank, not the sharp wit and personality that drew you in.
Nick never got to graduate from college or have a career so we don’t know what he would have done.
Neil can’t use his open honesty to teach anyone else how to deal with blind people; he taught me so much.
I could go on with that list and while I still complain about the down sides of this new phase of life and I sort of cringe at the idea of being in my 50s when I feel about 30 inside my head, I know that this milestone is yet another that I’m privileged to reach.
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I love this. Thank you. Inspiring. I am in the long haul myself but have unfortunately had a recurrence, So, I’ve been in those places you speak of. Well done! I hope you keep getting good results. I belive living well with cancer honors those who weren’t given the opportunity.