Supposed to Be My Year

by Ashley SeversonSurvivor, Renal Cell CarcinomaNovember 29, 2021View more posts from Ashley Severson

2021 was supposed to be my year. Living in Los Angeles, I made it through 2020 relatively unscathed, with big plans for the year ahead. I was transferring within my job, moving across the country, and starting my life with the man I love. The moving date comes at the end of January. My car is packed up, and my mom and I are ready for our 1,800-mile drive from Los Angeles to Saint Louis. We made good time, and I was able to get unpacked and settled before I started work. My mom flew back to California. We got into a routine, and things were going great. I had everything I had hoped for during our almost two years of long distance. We were happy.  

Skip forward to March. We flew out to California for my birthday. Spent time with my family and had an amazing trip. Two days after my birthday, I used my lunch break at work to stop by an urgent care. Pesky UTIs always seem to sneak up at the most inconvenient times. Two hours later I was told, “There is a mass on your kidney, and it’s in the blood vessels heading to your heart.” My entire world stopped. How could I be hearing these words? Truly this is something you hear about happening to someone else, not something that happens to you.  

Six days go by, filled with scans and tests. I was poked and prodded more within these days than I had in my entire life. Next, I am admitted to the hospital where my kidney, adrenal gland, and some lymph nodes are removed. I have made it through the hard part. The risk that came with surgery is behind me. Now I just have to heal. Boy, was I naïve…. 

Now my weeks and months are filled with doctor appointments, scans, blood tests,  and treatments. The time meant for working is spent on bathroom floors where I lose my lunch shortly after eating it. I am tired, weak, and depleted. 2021 was supposed to be my year. 

I had so many plans. I had so many dreams. Now, I struggle thinking about anything long term. There is always the constant fear that any plans made can quickly be ruined by scans with evidence of lesions or other concerning results. How do you live your life when the promise of tomorrow is no longer there like it had been “before”?

I grieve for my “before”. I miss the me that I used to be. The innocence and the  misplaced knowledge that nothing bad would happen, that I was invincible. I realized that I didn’t fully understand all of the struggles that cancer brings until I was thrown into its path. I felt so isolated and scared, even though the doctors were hopeful at the possibility of a good outcome. Why was I not happy with that? Why was I still focusing on the bad and scary when they said I had my life to keep living?

I went to a virtual seminar where they were offering a course on grief. Coping with the  loss of your pre-cancer self. Even just the title hit home. I had never been to a cancer seminar before, though. People recommended it, but I resisted at first. I did not want to be part of the group. I did not want to NEED to go to it… but I knew I was having a hard time. I finally accepted that it might be good to listen in and see what they had to say.  

I had never been so proud of myself to have tried something new. Everything made a bit more sense, and my feelings were validated. I had been trying to hold back my  feelings; I had been pushing them down and ignoring them, so that I could feel like I was as strong as everyone said I was. Strong was the last word I would have used to describe myself at that time. I felt so weak because I kept having bad days where the sadness and heaviness would overtake me. Why couldn’t I be happy and enjoy the days that I had been given?

Turns out it was because I had lost so much, and as with many different types of losses, you have to give yourself the space to grieve. I had lost my prior five-year plans, my safety and security, my health, my optimism, and so much more. Grief is not a linear path that you get through with determination. There are the “stages of grief” and yeah, they are numbered, but my numbers looked more like 3, 2, 4 versus 1, 2, 3. The path of grief is more like a maze, where you might feel like you are headed in the right direction for a while, but one little turn of the path and next thing you know it feels like day one all over again. Lost and confused and feeling hopeless. 

And that is OK! I learned in this discussion that so many other people were experiencing the same struggles and were learning right there with me. I don’t know about the other participants, but I was bawling my eyes out at times. To finally be given the right words that expressed how I was feeling was such a release. I could use what I was learning to take it easier on myself. I had lost myself, the old me. I was not going to get that person back, and I had the right to grieve this loss and start focusing on the person I was becoming. 

I needed to realize that going through an experience like cancer was something you do not just get over, like I had been trying to do. You cannot forget about it and bury it deep while going about a “normal” life. That is when the hardest times end up surfacing. It is something that you need to grieve and then take with you, whether you want to or not.

I still struggle with the grief caused by cancer. Some days feel normal, and even some weeks can go by where I feel almost like everyone else. But weeks where there are doctor appointments and scans always seem to send me back to that starting point. I end up grieving all over again, spending nights reflecting on everything that has happened and still not believing it. “How is it possible?” I ask myself that all the time. Even months later it still does not always feel real.

For me, it all happened so quickly. I was normal one day: a young adult celebrating  another birthday. Then just days later, the entire world was flipped upside down, and within a week I was on the path that both saved my life but also altered it forever. I am part of the cancer family now. It is not a family you ever intend to join, but it is a family that helps you when you need it the most.  

My grief does not stop me from living. If anything, I appreciate the good days that much more now. I know that none of these days are guaranteed, so whenever we have date nights, family outings, or new experiences, they all mean the world to me. I smile and I laugh and I live my life the best that I can. The sorrow has not gone away and still sneaks up from time to time, but I have people in my life that help me work through it instead of ignoring it. I will forever be grateful for my support system. I know not everyone has people they can rely on, and that is why the cancer family becomes such a great support.  

While I am in no way an expert, if I could give any advice, it would be to reach out: to go to that conference, to listen to others’ experiences. It may just give you the words you need to understand your own pain and give you the chance to learn that what you are feeling is okay. 2021 may not have been my year in the way that I had planned, but 2021 did not beat me. I am still here and have hopes for my future. They may look different than before, but I will be taking my experiences with me and doing my best to use them, not only for myself but for anyone else that I come into contact with. 2022, here we come. 

This story is featured in the December 2021 edition of the Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to check out our issues!

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