The Cancer Journals: Swimming to Shore

Read Sheelagh’s final journal entry to discover her experience on passing a significant cancer milestone.


I am bobbing in the ocean, my head just breaking the surface as I take in gulps of air and water. I am treading water, but within sight of land. The waves rise and fall so that sometimes I am lost in a trough, and at other times, lifted up on the crest from where I can the shore. It seems so close one moment, yet distant the next. A straggling line of swimmers stretches out across the horizon.

I turn my attention back to my oncologist in the Outpatient Clinic Exam Room. He has just informed me that the latest set of CT scans of my chest, abdomen and pelvis are “pristine” and my CEA, the cancer blood marker, has stabilized for the first time in 12 months. The cancer survival clock starts ticking from the time of diagnosis.

I have managed to slip past the two-year buoy.

He tells me that most colon cancers, if they recur, usually do so within the first two years. The word “usually” sticks in my mind. He doesn’t mention time lines for metastasis, a real concern for me with 11 affected lymph nodes, nor do I ask. Some things, I’ve discovered, I don’t wish to know. After my appointment, I wander about the lobby of the Cancer Clinic, oddly reluctant to leave. In this moment and in this place, everything seems right and I feel safe. I try to prolong the moment, because once I leave this place, the clock will start ticking again and I must resume my swim.

I am told to relax and not ruminate over the past, nor search my future for signs of cancer’s two Great Whites: recurrence and metastasis. It’s an impossible task, both for myself and many of my fellow swimmers.

With prior health scares, I used to comfort myself with the notion that my parents “wouldn’t have issued me a body that didn’t work.” It was a personal mantra. Nonsense of course, but comforting nonsense now swept away by the reality of having had cancer.

Cancer has changed me.

The chemo has diminished my prior stamina and left me with significant peripheral nerve damage. My ability to concentrate and focus are hampered at times. I feel more emotionally labile and given to moodiness.

But I am also more empathetic to those who are ill or frail and preoccupied with worry. I am more acutely aware of time as a non-renewable resource. I am more sensitive to the silent connections between people. I am more conscious of both the fragility of life and the strength of the life force within each of us. I trust more in the innate goodness of people.

However, I am cautious of physicians given to too quick reassurances. For me, two serious personal ailments almost reached tsunami proportions before being medically addressed. Now I am my own lifeguard. I follow up on my concerns and I press for answers.

It’s in my nature to instinctively try and penetrate the fog shrouded future. Against medical advice, I try and figure out if I will make the magic five-years survival and be “cured.” The odds are still 50-50.

But I am more fortunate than many; the ones who no longer swim with me. I will gather my strength and continue to strike for shore, all the while being vigilant for what may lie beneath.

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