There are certain events that are so shocking or devastating that you just can’t help but remember where you were and what you were doing when that happened. This phenomena is called a flashbulb memory, “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.”
These memories can happen on a national scale. For the previous generation, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. For my generation, it’s the sudden explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Most anyone you ask has a flashbulb memory of where they were when these shocking and emotionally riveting events happening. They may not remember most of what they did yesterday or last week, but they can remember that day.
When personal events happen, the effect is the same. I can tell you exactly what I was doing and where I was standing when I got the call that my father was in the hospital after having a massive stroke, for example. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is no different. I can tell you exactly what I was doing when my cell phone rang on July 8, 2014, at 5:33 p.m. when my doctor called to tell me I have cancer.
Cancer is something that cleaves your life in two. It creates a fissure at that moment when you learn you have cancer. In the middle of that fissure is your flashbulb memory, and the Before Cancer You and the After Cancer You are what lay on either side.
I know that I am still the same person, but I feel like there are now two versions of me: Before Cancer Me and After Cancer Me. I’m still trying to figure out all the ways that these two versions of me are different but also the same, and how to reconcile the two together.
Before Cancer Me saw the world in black and white. There wasn’t much gray. Part of that world view was youth and naiveté, and the invincibility that comes with it. Before Cancer Me also wanted to really live and to travel the world, but there was always excuses and more reasons to stay closer to home. Before Cancer Me would be so nit-picky over the smallest, insignificant things and I would be so annoying at telling everyone around me about it. My problem became your problem. If I went nuclear and you were collateral damage? Oh well. Sorry not sorry.
After Cancer Me has mellowed out – a lot. It’s been 93 days since I received my cancer diagnosis. I’ve had to re-examine so much about myself and how I want to live the rest of my days. The bar for what deserves my attention has gotten so much higher. I don’t have extra time to waste anymore. The bar for what bothers me has also gotten higher. A dirty knife at a restaurant? I can get over that because, compared to cancer, it will not kill me.
From what I know from other cancer patients and cancer survivors, I know that what I’m feeling is “normal.” And I put normal in quotes since there is nothing “normal” about coping with a major life illness.
If you know someone who is going through something similar, I ask this: Understand that they may be in the same boat as I am; that they are trying to reassemble themselves and figuring out who they are after a cancer diagnosis. Give them time and lots of love and understanding. The cancer journey can be a long and lonely one.
Read my continuing posts about breast cancer.