I just turned 55. Even if I didn’t remember, I’m sure the AARP won’t let me forget it: They’ve send me an application every year since I turned 50, and I’m sure this year’s is sitting in my post office box even as we speak. I’ve always loved my birthday. It was the start of the holiday season: My birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day if I really stretched it out. As an adult, my birthdays have mostly gotten less festive, but in recent years, they’ve never been more special. Because the alternative is worse: Not having a birthday and by definition getting older pretty much means you’ve kicked the bucket and I’m not ready to go there yet.
I don’t have even a twinge of remorse at getting older. The most profound lesson I’ve learned after three rounds of cancer is to appreciate every day I have, which I do. I first learned this lesson in 2001 when I was still a cancer rookie. I think I did a pretty good job of “making the most of my second chance,” which was my mantra for many years. I traveled a lot, took advantage of most opportunities, and quit my job when it wasn’t much fun for me anymore (BRILLIANT!)
When I was diagnosed with Thymic Carcinoma the first time in 2013, cancer had my full attention. This wasn’t breast cancer, which affects one in 8 American women. Thymus cancers (there are two) affect 1.5 of every one MILLION Americans. That’s .00015%. And I have the rarer of the two. Neither of the hospitals where I was treated had even seen anyone with Thymic Carcinoma. There is no standard of care for it. So my doctors and I negotiated and came up with a low-dose chemo and radiation plan. And a year later, it was back.
Now, there’s no cure, just clinical trials. The one I’m in has been working for almost a year (Yea!). But it’ll stop working some day and I’ll have to find something else to try to save my own life. Another recurrent TC patient told me this summer that we’ve already beaten the odds because life expectancy for people like us is 18 months. That’s why I embrace this 55th birthday and will embrace all the others I am blessed enough to have. And you should, too. Don’t ever complain to me about birthdays or getting old; you’ll get no sympathy from me. In fact, I’ll probably make a crack about how you just don’t get it in my inside voice, the one inside my head. Growing older AND growing bolder are gifts.
As the universe does, it threw a few powerful and inspiring examples of this my way. I rarely have to search for something to write about. I just have to open my eyes and my heart and receive. It’s the most amazing thing. Try it sometime.
I was on the Board for Canine Companions for Independence for six years when I lived in Orlando. I love this agency. It’s not about a disease or a terrible situation; it’s just there to bring a bit of independence and freedom to people, and they do it WITH ADORABLE DOGS, for God’s sake. What’s NOT to love? Anyway, I went back to Orlando to host the Tales and Tails Gala, which was honoring one of my good friends, Nancy. One of the people who spoke was Stefan, with his service dog, Knoxville. Stefan lost both his legs in Afghanistan, when he stepped on an IED while carrying an injured platoon member to safety. That soldier died. Stefan lived. Now, he runs marathons and 5Ks and plans to participate in the Invictus Games. And you know every birthday he has for the rest of his life will be special.
Then, last weekend, I went back for one more Livestrong Ride for the Roses celebration. I wasn’t going to, but it was the 20th anniversary and I have not yet figured out how to say no to my friend, Jeff. I am so glad I went. Being with this Livestrong family, some of whom I’ve known since my first RftR event in 2001, recharges me. These people have experienced cancer firsthand and personally know what a gift life is. You don’t have to tell them to be grateful for every day; they don’t take tomorrow for granted. They shout out their birthdays because many of them have come face-to-face with the possibility of not having another. They inspire me to keep living boldly and fearlessly… and bigly!! (Hee hee)
We pedaled off the line as the sun was coming up, as you can see, but it wasn’t long before I couldn’t keep up with my regular crew. I just don’t have the speed or the strength to ride like I used to (or even a reasonable facsimile). What I do have is stubbornness and the ability to suffer like a mother, which has gotten me through six Ironman races. I only rode 45 miles this year (An aside: I told my friend, Andrea I only rode 45, and she said, “In one day????” I love a fresh perspective from normal people. 🙂 ). The silver lining to my “short” ride is I had enough time for lunch with a dear friend who is deep in the battle right now. He made the superhuman effort to hang out with me over omelets and biscuits and I treasured every minute of it, even though there were no grits on the menu… IN TEXAS!!!
Probably the best part of my 55th was my cowboy Daniel letting us pause our assisted therapy ride for a moment so I could get a photo with him for my birthday. Sweet moments like this keep coming if you keep getting older… and keep having birthdays. Defy. Live fearlessly. But remember to celebrate often.