Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I won't lie to you all. After all, you're friends. I am writing this as I wipe away tears and sip a beer. The beer shouldn't be surprising; it's a snow day, after all, and I don't have to work tomorrow. In fact, it's the best type of snow day--I got the call before Lost came on, and got to have one more viewing of that favorite show while sipping a chocolate martini. Life should be great. I got my wish for this last season of my favorite show ever--to watch at least one more final-season episode ever-so-slightly buzzed and knowing I can browse message boards until midnight because I work for a rural school district during a bad February.

My mistake was turning to recorded programs on my DVR after Lost instead of just putting myself to bed. I turmed on a special recording I've had saved for a week: Surviving Survivor.

"Jason, can you record that for me?" I asked last Thursday night after eavesdropping on a few minutes of it while I was soaking in a hot bath. I work out on Thursday nights, usually, and treat myself to a soak while waiting for 30 Rock.

I had no idea how emotional that retrospective was going to be. It's all Ethan's fault.

I keep track of new Hodgkin's patients. It's almost like a collection I have: famous people who have shared my disease. I already was holding Barry Watson, Mark Fields, Arlen Specter, (just found out we share the same birthday--weird) and Michael C. Hall close to my heart as Hodgkin's lymphoma brothers. I knew Survivor winner Ethan Zohn had (has?) my cancer but in a rare, harder-to-beat form. But I had no idea how seeing his story was going to break my heart into a million little pieces.

After Lost, Jason went to bed. So I started that little Survivor retrospectve thinking it might be a great thing to watch while waiting to get tired. Sometimes, I ain't bright.

Memories started to flow even before the Ethan parts. Survivor started in summer 2000, just as Jason and I were packing up to leave our beloved apartment in Lexington to come back "home" to northern Kentucky. It was inevitable that we'd some back, really, but it seemed too soon. We had lived away from our parents' supervision for years. Yet there we were, leaving our best friends, leaving an area we had come to see as home to go back to our childhood zip code. It was the most painful transition I've ever made.

We swore we weren't going to watch that new reality show. But we found ourselves one night in an apartment left empty except for a bare mattress and a borrowed television, eating a packaged meal heated up in a friend's microwave.

"What's on?"

"That stupid Survivor show."

That's all it takes, sometimes, to become addicted.

Survivor followed us to our new apartment and our new old life. I loved that first season. And I loved the Outback season with Kentucky Joe, who used to work at the school I now call home.

I watched on and off for a couple of seasons. Then, in winter of 2003, I began to call myself a "Survivor." While dealing with the after-effects of cancer treatment, I fell in love with a pirate named Rupert. A good friend bought me my very own authentic Survivor buff from the Amazon season; I wore it over my chemo-thinned head then, and I wear it now when I run a 5K race. It's my talisman.

"Are you watching the finale tonight?" a Kroger clerk asked me one Sunday afternoon when I donned my buff over a sort-of-growing head of hair to grocery shop in the middle of treatment.

"Yes." I said. And there was no need to explain the other, more pressing reason why I was covering my head. That day, I was simply one fan among many.

So there I was tonight. I knew about Ethan. But watching his struggle (so much harder than mine because he has/had a more hard-to-beat type of Hodgkin's) brought everything back. I could smell the chemo. I remembered the hair loss, the nausea, the fear that I was going to die. The sadness I felt every day but tried to keep hidden because I was a new mom and I needed to stay strong for my family. It's been seven years, but it was just yesterday.

We had dinner this weekend with someone I haven't really, really talked to since I got sick. As people do, I found myself making small talk. I mourned my upcoming 36th birthday, that harbinger of middle age. I acted like I hadn't been introduced to my own mortality. Like everything was and always had been normal. What an idiot I am. They must have been thinking, "Does she not know how close she came to NOT being here? She should celebrate this milestone."

I do know how close I came. But then I don't. I'm not that person I was. I went through the fire and came out mostly unscathed. I am here, so it's hard to think that sometimes people don't get through it. People die. Seven years have passed, and I actually forget. I shovelled our driveway today all by myself with only a sore back to show for it. I run. I work. I push myself. And only twice a year at checkups do I really have to remember.

I cried for Ethan. And I cried for me. I too am a survivor. I didn't go to an island and out-play, out-last, or out-win. But I out-played, out-lasted, and out-won all the same. I just fought myself.

I cry for Ethan and hope that he and his soul mate Jenna (another sole Survivor from a favorite season--I, too, would strip naked for Coke, chocolate, and peanut butter) have the same luck Jason and I have had. I know that even if he beats it, and goes on to live a normal, cancer-free life, he too will have those moments where it all comes rushing back.

After all, once a Survivor, always a Survivor.

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