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How My Cancer Diagnosis Helped Me Recognize Birthdays Rock

Forty?? There is no way I can be 40!  That is how old old people are!”

That’s what I thought five years ago when I turned the “big 4-0.” My colleagues were amazing and went all out decorating my office and helping me celebrate, which did take some of the sting out. I generally love birthdays. Birthdays have always been a big deal in my family. We get a birthday week, a whole week of feeling special and honored. But if you’re like me (feeling old), facing a big milestone birthday like that might be met with mixed feelings. It’s fun to celebrate, but sometimes, I couldn’t believe how quickly time was passing and how old I was getting. However, when asked my age now, I proudly declare it.

I remember seeing an ad campaign, before my own cancer diagnosis, developed by the American Cancer Society about their work for over 100 years striving for a world with less cancer and more birthdays. I loved it and it really stuck with me. I had no way of knowing celebrating more birthdays and relishing each year you are blessed with to resonate so much with me in the years to follow. In the weeks leading up to my birthdays these days, I feel nothing but excitement and gratitude. When I was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma over two years ago, there were serious doubts about whether I would make it to my next birthday. The path that led me to this cancer diagnosis was an uncertain one, with me spending two weeks in the hospital — part of it unconscious, on a breathing tube and with many medical procedures to get me well and determine what was wrong with me. There were questions about whether or not I would leave the hospital, let alone fight this fight.

But I  fight. I am fighting hard to celebrate each birthday I have. Each birthday is a gift to be treasured because nothing in life is guaranteed to us. Each day people’s lives are cut too short not only due to a cancer diagnosis, but because of other illnesses or tragic accidents. None of us knows the twists and turns our lives will take — all we can do is enjoy the ride along the way. As I said, my birthdays have always meant a lot to me. It’s always fun to feel special and be the center of attention for the day. But now? Birthdays rock. I mean they kick some serious ass!

I believe each birthday should be a celebration of the year behind us. A year in which we have hopefully lived our days to the fullest. When we reflect back, we shouldn’t measure ourselves by the number of new wrinkles we have, how messy our house is or the size of our jeans. Life is imperfect and chaotic, but isn’t that what can make it great? Each wrinkle is a permanent reminder etched on your face, it cradles a story, a worry or a laugh. Sticky floors and a messy house, as I often try to remind myself, are made by children who are having fun and making memories. And those skinny jeans? These days I am a lot less concerned about whether my body can fit into them than I am about how it is responding to the medicines I am getting to fight this beast.

Each birthday is also a fresh start for a whole new year. A year in which, if we do it right, we can love with abandon, laugh uncontrollably, enjoy unexpected adventures and get one step closer to achieving our dreams. Another year during which we will inevitably make mistakes, but hopefully have the grace to forgive the mistakes of others. Another year to be silly, take chances and face our fears.

When I think about the last birthday I celebrated before finding out I had cancer, it feels like ages ago. I feel like I have lived a lifetime in the past two and half years. Life has an incredible way of showing us what really matters. I will never, ever again take a birthday for granted because I truly understand now, more than ever before, what a gift each birthday is. Another year gets me one step closer to seeing my kids graduate from high school, go to their proms, start families of their own.  Another year brings me that much closer to getting the retirement home my husband and I have long dreamed about. And each new year means the possibility of a cure for this awful disease.

When I blow out the candles for my birthday this year my wish will be simple — it will be for many, many more candles ahead.

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Thinkstock image by RuthBlack