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Why This Everyday Object Symbolizes My Life as a Survivor

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For those with a front row seat to my life, it’s no secret I’ve struggled to find my bearings since completing treatment.

Like the still-standing ruins near the epicenter of an earthquake, delicate cracks — both physical and psychological — lace through my foundation. And though many are invisible to passersby, the damage can at times be overwhelming.

This has not been the victory year I imagined.

Ghosts of what I have endured haunt my present and make guest appearances at inopportune moments. They walk with me through empty surgical corridors and while reading patient reports. Sometimes these ghosts unpack their bags for an extended stay on particularly weighty calendar dates, such as the anniversary of a surgery or a diagnosis.

And they dance, tauntingly, each time I am asked if my battle has been won.

Active treatment may be finished, but my relationship with cancer will never be over. Or at least not in the way most people assume. What I could not have known when I began this journey is that survivorship has its own set of trials and perils.

With a required follow-up schedule charted out over the next 10 years, treatment acquired side effects and comorbidities such as premature menopause, osteopenia and risks of cardiomyopathy to contend with — combined with an ever-present possibility of recurrence — forces me to live with near constant reminders that “normal life” is something of the past.

Though not always discussed in “polite company,” I’ve learned that many cancer survivors experience some degree of Post Treatment Stress Disorder. Due to unique issues faced when diagnosed at a young age, survivors in this age bracket may have a more difficult time post treatment. In fact, a recent study published in a leading oncology journal found young people diagnosed with cancer have a nearly 60 percent increased risk of committing suicide or attempted suicide as compared with non-cancer population – with the greatest increase occurring the first year post treatment. Which is why organizations such as Stupid Cancer, Young Survival Coalition and First Descents      — all of which I am involved in to some degree or another — are imperative to supporting this population.

But embracing the “new normal” after cancer — even with help — is easier said than done.

In the Japanese culture, ancient ceramics artists once filled the cracks of their broken pottery with veins of gold. These Kintsugi masters believed that when something has suffered damage, it adds character. It is, in fact, the flaws that give these pieces their true beauty.

Since learning about this ancient art, I’ve become rather obsessed with the practice and the philosophy behind it. And recently, after a long and cathartic talk about life and the art of mending brokenness, my talented friend Marci, herself a ceramics master — though she would never describe herself as such — gifted me with a beautiful piece of her work that I couldn’t help but share.

photo 3

The lovely, botanical-inspired mug is laced in gold and serves as a tangible reminder that although I cannot erase what happened to me or ignore the damage that’s been done, I will learn to fill the cracks left in cancer’s wake with a mortar crafted from humor, honesty, grit and grace. It is all that I have — I’m fresh out of gold. But it is enough.

More importantly, the gift is a gentle reminder that perhaps there is still beauty to be found — which is something I needed to hear right about now.

This post originally appeared on My Life, Distilled

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Originally published: April 8, 2015
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