My husband and I will be celebrating another year of marriage this Sunday, a day after our anniversary date, since I’ll be returning home from Toronto. I managed, however, to surprise him by sending a bouquet of flowers through FTD with a note of affection and gratitude for all the years of our many adventures together. This time, he admitted he had forgotten to calendar the date, busy with readying our home for the stream of potential buyers who viewed it all week long. He is forgiven, because four years ago, I actually forgot our anniversary myself and had to scurry to make up for forgetting.
There have been many other anniversaries in our lives—losses of our parents, births of our grandchildren, birthdays of family and friends, and other dates that, when they arrive, trigger the remembrance of other important events in our lives—like the day I was rushed to the hospital after collapsing on the pavement with what was later diagnosed with heart failure, or that afternoon in May, seventeen years ago, when I first heard the word “cancerous” apply to my life and become part of my regular vocabulary. It was an important event, and it altered my life in ways I did not expect, opening the door to other discoveries and ways of being. I often think about how my life was changed—in good ways—in the years that followed. I’m grateful I had the chance to create a new chapter of life, grateful I had the love and support of my husband.
Anniversary dates have a particular poignancy attached to them, whether birth dates, weddings or the other events that alter our lives—cancer, a loved one’s death, a nation’s tragedy. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of who we were then, what we have endured or achieved, and how those events shaped or changed us.
In the first anniversaries of loss, trauma or tragedy, strong emotions are often re-ignited: grief, old fears, relief, or happiness. I’m a believer in rituals or celebrations to mark important anniversaries or milestones. My husband and I have one ritual, for example, we share each Thanksgiving Day, to honor my father, who died of lung cancer on Thanksgiving Day, 1992. In the days before his death, requested we celebrate invite all his existing family members and friends to a wake and toast his life with a glass of Jack Daniels whiskey, his perennial favorite. Now, each Thanksgiving, we remember him with that same ritual, toasting my father and sharing a favorite memory of him. It’s something that solidifies and preserves his memory each November, and inevitably, honors his life with story and laughter—just what he wanted.
Celebrations and rituals are important and meaningful in healing, offering a way to acknowledge our experience and place it into the context of our larger lives. We remember. We’re reminded of who we were and how far we’ve come. We are reminded how much we have to be grateful for.
I no longer remember the day I heard the words, “it’s cancerous…” Mine was such an early stage diagnosis that it didn’t carry the same impact of those I now know whose lives have been profoundly altered by an aggressive cancer diagnosis. Yet, time softens the difficult memories, and some milestones even recede in importance as life goes on. The pain of loss diminishes. We discover new friends, new joys, even hope, and gradually, we move on to create new life chapters, no matter how long we live.
I often think of the words of novelist Alice Hoffman, who described her cancer experience in a 2001 New York Times article: “An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter,” she said. That’s true of so many of the painful, sad or difficult chapters of our lives. As we heal, we have less need to mark the dates of suffering, instead, we live forward, fully immersed in life. It doesn’t mean we forget, but rather, we celebrate rather than mourn. We honor. We give thanks.
There are many ways to celebrate or honor important milestones in the in our lives. Here are some suggestions from Cancer Net, but they are applicable to many of the milestones and anniversary dates of life. Take time to reflect. Plan a quiet time to think about your cancer experience and reflect on the changes in your life. Writing in a journal, taking a long walk through the redwoods, along the ocean, or anywhere you enjoy being, offers the quiet time for reflection.
Plan a special event. One of the women in my writing groups celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica after completing her treatment for a recurrence. Why not plan something special, like a hot air balloon ride a trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to take, or plan a gathering with family and friends.
Donate or volunteer. When I first joined the ranks of “cancer survivor,” I was the interim director for Breast Cancer Connections, a Palo Alto, CA nonprofit. I was impressed by the number of cancer survivors who, daily, gave their time to volunteer at BCC. Many cancer survivors find that donating or volunteering helps give positive meaning to their cancer experience.
Join an established celebration. Many of us have walked, run, or participated in support of one of the annual cancer survivor walks hosted by patient advocacy groups and cancer organizations. Communities and cancer centers around the country also celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day, which is the first Sunday in June.
Do something you truly enjoy. Celebrating can just be taking time to do something you enjoy, husband taking a walk along the seashore or through a public garden, going to a film or the theater with a friend, placing flowers on a loved one’s gravesite, or, as I will tomorrow, sharing a special dinner together with my spouse, grateful for this gentle man who so willingly embraced not only me, but my then adolescent daughters, weathering their storms in the wake of a father’s death to create a loving and enduring bond between them.
. Of the anniversary dates are important to you, which do you remember most vividly?
. What images or feelings do those dates evoke?
. Write the story of that date. What happened?
. Why was it important to you?
. How did your life change because of it?