Content warning: suicidal ideation
It was a beautiful sunny day when I found out she had passed.
I was just becoming accustomed to a new tradition—stopping for gas station hot chocolate. It was a ritual I had begun after starting physical therapy to regain use of my right arm after the three surgeries I had. The first was to remove a benign, golf ball-sized tumor out of my elbow. Then a few months later, to open me back up again after radiation and remove more precious centimeters of my median nerve after a biopsy showed that my “benign tumor” was actually cancerous. And finally, once again, a year and a half later, I was cut open to remove it when it grew back even larger than the first time, after nuking my body with doxorubicin and ifosfamide to make sure it stayed put.
My friends and family always found it a bit absurd that I would get a hot drink after exercising, especially considering the sweltering Florida heat. But they knew better than to counter with reason. It made sense to me, and that was all that mattered.
I had just parked my car and opened Instagram to scroll for a while before heading inside. It was nice to distract myself with the lives of others. A girl I knew from high school was getting married. Another just adopted a dog.
But I digress.
On that particular day, I opened up Instagram, and just like that, Hannah was gone.
I didn’t know her as well as most, but when your cancer is as rare as ours, you develop a certain level of unspoken familiarity. I am one of four people I know with synovial sarcoma. Two of them were in hospice, and one’s cancer had just died alongside them.
There’s a disgustingly necrotic feeling that comes with finding out through social media that your friend has died. But I didn’t know her family; they couldn’t give me a call and tell me that she was gone. We couldn’t share our grief, however familiar it was.
I had just sent Hannah a message a week before she passed. She was in the final stages of hospice, after posting about how she was scared, asking if anyone knew of any clinical trials that would accept her. I talked about how I was sorry that life was so unfair, and how I would make sure to remember her for everything she was. How if I could, I would give her the lung she so preciously needed in order to keep on living.
She would never read it before she passed. Instead, after the announcement of her passing was made, I went to read through our messages to reminisce, and my most recent message had been opened.
My grief was now her family’s to carry.
Living with cancer is a tricky thing, because within the act of living is an inescapable reminder that you can still die from cancer. It’s been a couple months since Hannah has passed, and I’ve gone back to read our messages more times than I’m willing to admit.
Alongside the grief of losing her lives the guilt that it wasn’t me instead. Intellectually, I hold the understanding that there is no trade-off. We were simply the ones picked in a horrible, horrible lottery. I am still an unlucky one, yet, watching people around me become unluckier somehow corrodes away at my gratefulness. I feel guilty for being grateful. I feel guilty for not being grateful enough. I feel guilty for feeling guilty because yet, I am still alive enough to feel guilt.
Some days, when it’s a struggle to be alive still, I wonder if the luck was wasted on me. Of course, I feel guilty about that too.
Hannah was bold, and she always spoke openly about the progression of her cancer. She talked about hospice, she talked about the feeling of the cancer pressing in her lungs. She was feisty, she was young, she had regrets, she traveled, and above all else, she deserved to live.
Cancer has stolen my ability to view living as an objectively neutral thing. I now envy the inevitability of a healthy person’s life. At the same time, I grieve the inevitability I used to have before the statistics and odds and unknowns of cancer took it all away. I now grieve the same inevitably that I once hated. I grieve the same life that at one point in my life, I tried to end, long before cancer took over.
Oftentimes, I feel like a hypocrite for wanting to be alive now. I often think that it would’ve been better me than her, that the will to live shouldn’t have become the burden of someone who was dying.
But I know Hannah wouldn’t have wanted that.
She, and many others, is survived by the ones who feel the grief of their deaths, and the guilt of our own survivorship. We carry the burden and the gift of living. And if we pass, then that same grief will become others’ to bear.
I’ve come to accept that there’s no winning in surviving, and no losing in death. I am working on shaping a more neutral outlook towards the inevitable. I am trying not to let the fear of the unknown impede on the life I have now. Nowadays, I am trying to live more than not, for Hannah, and for the many others who had their choice stolen.
Above all else, I am trying to make surviving feel less like a burden, and more like an opportunity to live. I’m learning to give myself permission to have these conflicting feelings as I navigate a life as someone whose next ten years aren’t promised. I’m working to accept the guilt, the fear, and the ambiguity that comes with it, because feeling the guilt of living means one important thing: right now, I am alive. And while I may never live to celebrate a 30th birthday, at the very least, I still have this moment.