Childhood Cancer

Childhood Cancer Survivors

Anniversary reactions

Anniversaries can be times of pain or joy and sometimes an inexplicable mix of both. There are different anniversaries for everyone: for some it is the date of diagnosis, while for others it is the last day of treatment. Some survivors celebrate the 5-year remission date. Whether or not any of these anniversary dates are “marked,” they are likely to touch off some kind of emotional reaction—and this is normal. One mother of a teen with cancer said, “I think that whenever we touch the same place in the circle of the year, we stop and look around us to see the different shapes and colors of reality. And it often takes our breath away.”

For families of survivors with few or no long-term effects from their treatment for cancer, anniversaries are sometimes forgotten and sometimes celebrated. Some families file the memories away and skip rituals that tie them to the memories of hard times. Others remember and give thanks for their life and good health.

I was diagnosed a couple of days before my dad’s birthday and had my port surgery on that day—February 7. But I don’t think about that on his birthday anymore. My family actually celebrates a “cancer-free” day every year on the date of my last chemotherapy. Now that I’m in college, they usually send me flowers. I also send an email out to all my friends that says something like, “Three years—Yay Erin.” I get lots of congratulations emails back.

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Some memories are so clear and just never fade with time. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1972. I can remember exactly what I was doing when I found the enlarged lymph node that led to my diagnosis. And I remember exactly what I was wearing when the doctors told me I had HD. And I remember exactly what my fiancé said after we walked out of the doctor’s office. And what my parents’ faces looked like when they came out of the office and walked back across campus with us. So when Christmas rolls around I find myself with thoughts that stray to these very vivid memories. Hard not to.

Families of survivors with numerous or serious late effects from treatment may have more evident daily reminders of their anniversaries. They often struggle with the urge to be grateful for life, but grieve the many losses.

I guess it’s not surprising or novel that I have mixed emotions about this anniversary. First and foremost I am out of my mind joyful that he is still here with me, cancer-free, able to talk and walk and sing and do every little thing that I will never take for granted again.

But then there are the constant reminders of all that he has lost, and I know I need to somehow and finally come to grips with those losses, but I don’t have the capacity to do that yet, it seems. When we are in a crowd, and maybe he is 5 feet from me, and he looks around for me, I know he can’t see, because he doesn’t know which person is me until I say his name and wave. This is unbearably sad for me.

My son was singing songs at 6 months old, a leader in his day care, the biggest, most advanced kid in any group of peers, running laps at 20 months. And today people see this big kid who looks older than he is and who acts kind of clingy, limps, seems a bit slow, doesn’t look you in the eye, doesn’t pay attention, can’t catch a ball or run. I just still want to grab the world by the lapels and shake it and scream.

But because it’s cancer, I’m supposed to be just completely happy with the situation (which I am, at the same maddening time). But if my son had been hit by a drunk driver or in a hit and run, I would be allowed my rage. I’d be validated in my hatred for the person who caused this ruin in our lives.

Are these anniversary rantings? Oh, I think they’re everyday rantings, but because it’s anniversary time, they’re just so much more intense. I’m beginning to think that anniversaries just sharpen the point of the pencil, and make the lines finer and the words sharper.

Sometimes it is not a specific date, but an entire month or season that is fraught with significance.

Before 1988, our family had good associations for the month of August. Kimbra and all her cousins were born in August, and each of their dads was born in August. Each year we would have our big family picnic and celebrate everyone’s birthday. My grandparents also had their wedding anniversary in August.

In 1988, Kimbra was diagnosed with cancer. She had chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. We got bad news on her birthday and her dad’s birthday, so August now has some bad memories. However, the important thing is that we have August days to celebrate her still being with us. When the anniversary dates evoke bad memories, we try to cancel them out with lots of big hugs.

Cancer affects everyone in the family—often in different ways. It helps if family members share their feelings so they can create their own rituals to cope with or celebrate anniversaries. And each family should decide for itself when it is time to continue the tradition or let it fade into the past.

My daughter is 7 and was diagnosed at age 3 with Wilms tumor. We celebrate her remission date every year. This year, we went to the hospital to say thank you to her doctors, then met some TV people who did a piece on childhood cancer, and then to Chuck E. Cheese ® . It was a full, happy day. I wondered if I shouldn’t just let the memories slip away and stop celebrating. I asked my daughter what she thought, and she said, “So many people worked so hard to save me that I think it is important to remember.”

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The diagnosis anniversary has always been hard for me. The way I deal with it—at least since I figured out what the problem was—is to try to cut myself some slack for those days. I eat my favorite meals, watch favorite movies plus ones I want to see for the first time, spend a lot of time basically just doing what I want when I’m not at work. I consider it my way of celebrating the fact that I’m still here after 10 years and of “defying” Hodgkin’s—blowing raspberries, if you will!

The more you try to deny your feelings about it, the worse it is. Give in and you might be surprised at how much better you feel. I cry less when I let myself do what I want instead of holding myself to the same standards as the rest of the year.