Changing the Narrative — A Wildfire Story
March 14, 2023
“Let’s unwrite these pages and replace them with our own words.” Rise Against – “Swing Life Away”
April 12th haunts me every year. Some years it creeps up, stunning me as I write it down when I start work. Some years I realize it’s coming weeks before and dread every day as it approaches. A few years I’ve prematurely thought I’d finally forgotten it, only to realize I hadn’t. But every year it arrives with the same dread, the same pain, and the same anxiety, forcing me to relive the blurry events of that day, and the life-altering changes that followed. April 12th is the day I was diagnosed with my first cancer.
I was 23 and had finally arrived home after a long day in the clinic being bombarded with medical tests. Hoping to grab dinner before I trudged through the snow to write my penultimate university exam, I got the call from my doctor, “Go to the hospital, now! No time to eat, and you’re not writing your exam,” she said. “Pack a bag, call a cab, and go to emergency. They’re expecting you.” The rest of the evening was a blur as they ran test after test, while my parents and boyfriend rushed in from out of town to join me at the hospital. Just before midnight the doctor gave the news that would forever carve this day into my brain: “You have cancer.”
It was only the first of several diagnoses, but for some reason the others haven’t held as much weight for me. I remember generally when they happened – the day after I finished radiation for that first cancer, the week of my (now) husband’s big birthday party, the year after my daughter was born – but I can’t remember their specific dates. And I don’t remember the endings either. It’s hard for me to pinpoint the day any cancer is “over,” because I haven’t always known which treatment or surgery would be the last, and I was never told I’d been cured – just in remission. Then there’s the possibility of it coming back again, and when you’ve had as many cancers as I have, the dates and treatments and surgeries all start to blur.
It’s also discouraging that the cancer-free clock resets back at zero with each new diagnosis, bringing with it another new normal; a term I grew to loathe. It’s used frequently when talking about cancer, and it used to frustrate me that I would never get back to my old normal again, forever having to adapt and readjust my expectations. I was reminded of this when April rolled around each year, increasingly frustrated to have to reinvent and adjust to accommodate the challenges cancer kept throwing at me.
As I got older (and supposedly wiser) I came to realize that everyone has their own challenges, just not with cancer per se. We change and grow and become new people as part of “regular” life, from childhood to puberty to adulthood, to relationships and parenthood and older age. All of this creates new versions of ourselves, new identities, new “normals.” The difference is these new norms are culturally accepted and anticipated as part of everyday life, and most everyone can relate. I slowly began to learn that I can, and should, change my outlook on these difficult situations and accept them the same as I’ve accepted the everyday ones. I can’t deny or undo my cancers and their damage, but I can change how I choose to think about them. They will always be there in my past, along with the worries, the fear, and the losses I’ve accumulated because of them, but that doesn’t mean they have to control me or dominate my every day.
I’ve also realized that I have been celebrating life in the non-cancer moments, both big and small. From falling in love, getting married, and having children, to enjoying the sound of rain pattering on the roof, the crunch of leaves when walking in the fall, and the feel of the wind in my hair. I’ve learned to adapt and live with the pain and the bad experiences as well as the happy moments, and to enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the destination. The destination being surviving cancer, which I technically won’t reach because I won’t know that I’ve beaten it until I die of something else!
Twenty years after my first diagnosis I was getting tired of facing my annual April dread again. As I looked at the calendar in anticipation of April 12th arriving, I realized it would fall on a Friday, and something in me switched. I’d been fighting cancer, thriving despite it, and kicking its butt for 20 years, so instead of dreading the date, shouldn’t I be celebrating it? Celebrating that I was still alive? That I was still fighting? That year I decided it was time for me to take back April 12th and change the story in my head. My first cancer would be turning 20 years old, so I would throw it a party. A “Fuck Cancer: 20 Years of Sil Kicking Cancer’s Ass” party! I booked my favorite fancy restaurant, invited a bunch of friends, got all dressed up, and partied. We ate, we drank, we reminisced, and most importantly, celebrated that I was still alive and fighting. (Then I did it all again the next day with my family for good measure.)
April 12th is now a day I look forward to. Its approach means that I’ve been kicking cancer’s ass for another year, and each year moves me closer to winning my ultimate fight against it. There’s a quote I heard in my teens that goes something like, the best revenge is to live, and to live well, and I’ve decided that’s what I’ll continue to do. While kicking cancer’s ass, of course. For at least another twenty years.
Silvana Langley • Technology manager. Diagnosed at 32. IDC, mucinous carcinoma, Stage I, ER+, PR+. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 23, a brain tumor at 24, and most recently alveolar carcinoma at 45.
Silvana is no stranger to the cancer world and has tried to give back by sharing her experiences while volunteering in the cancer community when she is able to. Her favorite activities when not fighting cancer are (literally) kicking butt in kung fu class, hiking up mountains, and camping with her family. She is also a working mother and wife who lives with her family in Toronto, Canada. • @SilvanaLangley
This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the “5 Years & Counting” issue, published originally February 18, 2023. More information available at wildfirecommunity.org
WILDFIRE Magazine is the only magazine for young women survivors and fighters of breast cancer under 45 years old. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, WILDFIRE is a beautiful, story-based bi-monthly magazine published on different themes relevant to young women survivors, from stage 0 to stage IV. Beautiful and ad-free! Visit wildfirecommunity.org for more info.