by Evadne Giannini*

and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. Job 1:16

There were times during the five years of remission that someone would ask me, How was I doing? Not knowing how to describe the depth of what was going on, I would tell them that I felt like a sprout in a glass of water swaying from a cool breeze from an open window or trying not to wither from a lack of water. Clearly, the sprout and I have no footing. If we both are lucky and can survive, we both will take on a new life. The sprout will be potted and eventually get taken outside to re-root. I, with will, good medical care, and divine intervention have and did enter the Survivor Phase of cancer recovery.

BJ Miller calls this phase Re-entry. Re-entry is the perfect way to describe the Survivor phase of cancer or for that matter for anyone surviving a near death experience. I found it to be the most difficult phase to navigate. You are on your own.

The Survivor Phase of cancer recovery was never even discussed or considered by any of my doctors. After each of my post-treatment appointments, they shook my hand or patted me on the back and dutifully ticked off the post-cancer appointments on my chart. Note: I had been seeing these life preservers every month for three years and then every 3 months for two years. They had watched over me, kept me alive, and cancer free. Now I was free to swim back into life and on my own. I had made it to the elite class of survivor, of the big one, pancreatic cancer and of course, I was grateful to be alive and “HAPPY.” But, five years in the Bardo had changed me.

Re-entry happened when my life was a total mess. G.W. Bush had gutted all potential funding, and my fledgling environmental consultant business had no prospects for work.  Leo, my son, was in the epicenter of his most difficult period in high school. We were living way too close to the edges financially and with college tuition looming. Rage, fear, and shame filled our lives.

The early years of coping were spent in solitude. Horrible mood swings which I chalked up to maybe menopause but knew it was much more than that. Who could I talk with about my guilt for being alive or the fact that there was no “Just like your old self?” The old self and now the new me had no mutual identity. We were strangers and not very fond of each other. Anyone who knew me before, with their own fears of dying, could see me with relief. “She is just like her old self.” Consequently, old familiar relationships felt often painfully superficial.

My loneliness and isolation were heightened by my lack of being able to explain the new me. My body had also changed. It continued to make uncanny demands at unthinkable times. My priorities and value had changed. So much of life’s daily routines became trivial. And, yes, I lacked compassion for people, “They just didn’t get what was important.”

Emotionally, mentally, and spiritually I had changed. No, I did not want to go back to the old me. This journey was terribly important. The new me – old me was a constant struggle. I still felt the pull of old habits trying to drag me back. I was seeing and feeling life through a new lens. I had been given the gift of life. And every day was a reminder of that gift. I must have been given the gift because somehow the powers that be knew that I had work to do, and they had a purpose for me being here. Could I, would I, be able to fulfill that charge? With five years of remission behind me, what was my new life marker? How many days, months, or years? And without my cocoon of doctors and care close at hand, how would I know if I was, OK?

With folks around me, wanting to grasp on to the old me, the one that liked to just sit and chill, always positive that tomorrow is another day. I could no longer make that assumption. I fought these inner demons with vengeance. Survivor guilt is not only guilt for being alive while others have died but also guilt for wanting to abandon the old you.

Family is hard. Habits and my young life with them are their familiarity. Some members would rather not even deal with the fact that you went through the experience. Others cry when they see you out of self-reflective fear. My straightforward acceptance and intensity about life and laser focus in finding my purpose for being given this gift must be scary. Accepting and understanding this somehow different person is difficult. The guilt of abandoning the old me resurfaces during family occasions. It was still too
fresh even for me to articulate the physical and spiritual journey that was now defining my life.

Perhaps that is why newfound friends are so important to me. I feel a calm in their presence. This me is the only skin they know, and there is no pull to go back. No, “what’s the matter?” or questioning. I am totally accepted of who I am. I like the new me. And, yes, I am incredibly happy, and I, finally, feel re-rooted. I think often about my fellow human beings who must navigate re-entry. Sadly, like me, they, too, will go it alone, ravaged with guilt, fear, and uncertainty until they find out that they are not alone. With time and patience, they too will re-root and begin to rest, and live in daily gratitude and the acceptance of the new person they have become.

*Author Bio: Evadne Giannini has had a robust career in theatre, fashion design, and settled down on business development and sustainability. At 50, and the height of her career, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Recovering, from surgery, she opened her firm HospitaltiyGreen, serving over 800 businesses in sustainability training and planning.  Currently, she is writing a memoir on her colorful career, and her journey to find purpose in her work. Email:

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About David Elpern

The Online Journal of Community and Person-Centered Dermatology (OJCPCD) is a free, full text, open-access, online publication that addresses all aspects of skin disease that concern patients, their families, and practitioners. ​It was founded in 2012 by Dr. David J. Elpern, M.D. in Williamstown, MA. with technical help from Inez Tan.

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