Every once in a while, questions of future planning and where I want to be in five years pop up.
Six months ago, I'd never have believed that my answer would be: I just want to be alive.
It's not drama. It's not hyperbole. It's what (I'm guessing) any of us with metastatic breast cancer wish for. Five years
Or more, preferably.
While incredible strides have been made in the treatment of cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to longevity. There are success stories and, more recently, claims that certain cases can be treated like a chronic condition rather than a death sentence.
But if you're like me, and you follow pages like METAvivor, you know that people are still dying from the disease. Also, if you're like me, you wake every morning wondering when you're next.
I'm going to stop right here. Because I'm thinking you might be thinking: But I'm not like you. This isn't happening to me.
Maybe you're so boldly thinking it won't. Until I was blindsided in January of this year, this wasn't me either.
I'm not writing this because I enjoy being a doom whisperer. But I do feel it's a bit of my responsibility to put a voice in your head that says: Get your mammograms regularly. Perform self-exams. Be your own advocate if your doctor says you don't need a 3D mammogram, but you feel like you do.
And beyond that immediate message: Live and love like you're terminal. Because we all are. Sure, you've heard that plenty of times. If we're connected as friends or professionals, you've heard it from me.
But it's human nature to ignore our mortality; to pretend the inevitable isn't—or is, but a long way out. It's how we can go about our days feeling joyful.
What if I told you that, for me, having stage IV cancer feels a little like a gift?
I'm not being disingenuous. The reality is, this horrible diagnosis that no one would ever desire shook me out of complacency. With my marriage. With my career. With my priorities. With how I care for my body.
I'll never forget the moment we found out for sure the spots on my bones were metastatic. Ben and I clung to each other like we were one person for the entire day. Wherever we went, the dark cloud followed. There was no escape. We found being apart was so painful, we began planning weekday lunches and walks and getaways so we could be together as much as possible.
In short: We woke up.
We stopped thinking our time together is promised. And that changed everything about our relationship. We became softer, nicer, more patient, more forgiving, more grateful. You know, like you're supposed to be with the one you love, but you sometimes aren't when you've been a couple for more than a quarter of a century.
As a freelancer, I took stock of my endeavors. I even decided to snuff an effort I'd been trying to get off the ground for a while because I realized I was forcing it. And I also kind of hated it.
And trying not to hate it suddenly seemed ridiculous.
I've said "no" to projects and contracts that don't appeal to me, and I continue to. Do I have that luxury? Not really. But I'd rather make a sacrifice elsewhere than fill my limited days with frustration and tedium and badly behaving clients.
How I spend my days—and with whom—has changed, too. Even with incentive, it's not like I've transformed overnight. But I do at least make a mental note when I'm wasting time on unworthy thoughts, activities, and people. And every day, I get a little better at choosing what gets my attention.
The last big shift has been with my health. I've tried to find a balance between taking my body on a couch-surf of pizza, wine, and cookies, and being so strict that all the fun is sucked out. I could eat and laze as much as I want, with the mindset that there's little to invest in. But I also know that exercise and a plant-centric, toxin-free diet can make my body stronger in this fight. There's a sweet spot here; I'll let you know when I find it.
Now, here's the thing: I might get 10 years. I might even get more. But I refuse to return to a place where I believe any time is granted. After all, if not this, there's still that proverbial bus that everyone talks about getting hit by.
I'd rather not end on that note, though.
Instead, I'll implore you to treat your life with a sense of urgency. Every day you spend creating quality is a day you won't regret down the road.
The time is now.
Allison Kay Bannister, a West Michigan resident since 1987, professional writer since 2002 and GVSU alumna, recently launched her own freelance writing business. Allison enjoys travel, art, dance, food and exploring world cultures—and, of course, writing about all these and more.
Photo courtesy of Kylee Preseau.