I get frustrated sometimes at how the idea of living “one day at a time” is glamorized. Appreciating what each new day brings and enjoying the good things in your life every day is something many are better at after a cancer diagnosis, but that’s not the same as living “one day at a time”. Many of us after a cancer diagnosis do involuntarily live “one day at a time”, because we lose the ability to think of our life in future terms. We understand profoundly that we may not have a future. It’s a tough way to live.
When I was diagnosed with a high grade Stage IV cancer, the survival statistics I found in medical literature indicated my odds of dying within 3 years were 9 out of 10. I have always trusted statistics. I am medically educated and for the most part diseases in patients I’ve cared for, with few exceptions, have followed documented statistical patterns for their illness. I’d seen some odds defied over my decades of caring for the ill, but not often. So I trusted my own disease statistics.
For the longest time after my diagnosis I was unable to plan for a future. I could not schedule appointments for 6 month dental cleanings. I could not say the words “next year”. I couldn’t commit to vacation plans. I had trouble making career commitments, so I did a lot of volunteer work. When I returned to work I chose PRN employment that required minimal commitment.
I think we take for granted how often we assume a future. We take for granted all of the times we say without thinking “next summer” or “next Christmas” or “when my kids are older” or “when I retire”. When I could no longer take a future for granted, I learned that much of what makes our lives worth living is anticipating a future, reaching for goals, realizing dreams, making plans.
I have now survived cancer-free for eight years. I can say now “next year”, though I will never think about or make plans for a retirement…I can’t think that far into the future still. I know from my own experience how quickly the bottom can fall out of our lives. I know with certainty none of us is promised tomorrow. So I plan a bit for the future now and have learned again to set goals and dream a bit, but it will always be with reservation. I am no longer naive. I no longer assume I will live to old age.
I miss still the old before-cancer days when I took time in my life for granted, when knowing that bad things could happen was an intellectual but not emotional knowledge.
My kids are young adults now. They see their future as wide open. They are making plans for this year but already contemplating where they will live next year, whether they will change their college majors, whether they might one day marry or maybe stay single or live in another country. They think maybe one day they will have children or maybe not, maybe they will adopt instead of having their own. They take for granted a future of endless possibilities and dreams. I remember when I once felt that way.
As I watch my kids dream of the future, at the same time I am trying to support the family a 23 year old cancer patient who will soon lose his battle after a two year fight, who is now living without plans for a future after almost completing his college education.
I hope my kids get to keep planning and dreaming….to stay naive for a long while.
I hope that they don’t have to live “one day at a time” until they are very old. That they continue can dream of endless possibilities for the future. That they never feel their future is threatened.