Two months ago, at the age of 34, I got my first new couch and realized I’m officially an adult.
Buying a couch isn’t the kind of life change most people brag about. But when you’re not getting married, buying a home or having a child, you mark adulthood in different and creative ways. And when you survive a life-threatening disease – as I did with breast cancer at age 30 – you long not only for the big markers but for the small, seemingly mundane ones. My lovely gray, L-shaped sectional is my five cushions of normalcy. And for me, that’s huge.
In my 20s, I never turned up my nose at my previously loved loveseats. My father was one of eight children, so in my family, we were taught that getting a hand-me-down was an honor. There was my uncle’s couch; the one my aunt found; and that plaid one that a friend of a friend decided didn’t match her decor.
On those couches, I laid down slipcovers, fretted about meeting Mr. Right, nervously crafted cover letters for jobs in Louisiana, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. It’s where I rested my weary, 30-year-old body after a double mastectomy. It’s where I brushed away strands of my hair during chemo. And, ultimately, it’s where I learned to live again. I reclined – and relied – on my couches. They felt like home.
After cancer, though, that changed. Months of treatment taught me the importance of renewal and rebirth – and that meant not living my life on someone else’s couch. For once, I wanted all the coins in the hidden nooks of my couch to be ones I’d dropped there. I didn’t want to watch TV on the same piece of furniture where I’d weathered a serious illness. Buying a new sofa cover couldn’t make the painful, recent past disappear. I would sit down, close my eyes and instantly be back in 2011, rubbing my bald head and wondering when I’d be well again.
Still, it was hard to say good-bye. My battered couch had supported me in my lowest moments, and just two years later I was abandoning it in a trash bin. Tossing it out felt like a betrayal, but I knew it was time.
I did keep my grandmother’s gray leather recliner, some chairs that survived water damage from a neighbor’s fire, my partner’s ottoman and a big comfy chair. On them I studied for my master’s degree, read and daydreamed about what could come next.
When you get a cancer diagnosis as a young person, you don’t just lose your health. You also lose your freedom to do things that people your age are doing and taking for granted. Instead of visiting Port-of-Spain, my father’s Caribbean homeland, I journeyed there in PET scan naps. Dinner plans were scheduled around my white-blood-cell count. And there was that time I was so exhausted before a friend’s birthday party that I couldn’t make it from the car to the pharmacy’s front door to pick up a card. When I gave those things up, I longed not only to travel and eat at the hottest new restaurants, but for the boring routine of everyday life. Flat-ironing my hair, eating a salad, sipping wine with a friend on my couch.
I wanted the chance to make those little decisions that every other 20- or 30-something does – buying a couch to match an accent wall in my apartment, figuring out where to hang a diploma and wondering why all your toilet paper keeps disappearing. I wanted to do anything but think about my next MRI.
And now, in those simple moments, I’m taking my life back: The ordinary feels extraordinary.
It can also feel overwhelming. When I sat on my new couch for the first time in the showroom, my heart started to pound and I got a little woozy. Sure, part of it was the idea of plunking down a considerable amount of cash, but the other part of me thought: Am I ready for this?
Before I could figure it all out, my Mom told the salesman: “We’ll take it.”
Cancer does that to you; it makes you doubt everything. Because as far as you knew, you were never getting sick. You were never going to lose your breasts and hair or talk about harvesting your eggs to preserve your fertility. And when you do, it shatters everything you believe as a young, seemingly invincible person. Even though I was buying this couch four years after my mastectomy, I still doubted whether I could transition into a “normal” life, where I picked out furniture instead of reconstruction options.
When I spoke to Trish Raque-Bogdan, an assistant professor at the University of Denver who studies young cancer patients, she talked about how rituals can ease the transition from sick to healthy. She says that buying a couch probably felt scary because it signaled that I was leaving the post-treatment phase. “When you don’t have your support team in place that you’re regularly seeing,” she said, “that phase or that transition can be so ambiguous.”
For young cancer patients, she said, there’s no clear sense of what it looks or feels like to be a survivor. About 70,000 young adults – ages 15 to 39 – are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. We account for about 5 percent of those diagnosed with the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve weathered bouts of uncertainty in my own way. I got dolled up for a photo shoot while still bald from chemo, shared an end-of-treatment banana split with just about everyone I love, threw a cancerversary party a year after hearing those three little words (“You have cancer”), and ordered a T-shirt that reads “My Oncologist is My Homegirl” to wear to my checkups.
When my couch was delivered, I thought of my cancer journey and I sobbed. I cried for all my survivor sisters and brothers who didn’t get to have this very normal moment on a very ordinary Friday. And I shed tears because I had made it to what many others wouldn’t consider a major milestone.
As the delivery crew screwed on each of the dark wooden feet and pushed together the three sections, it was as if I was watching them put my new life together. Those first few days, you couldn’t get me away from my couch. Over and over, I’d sit down, prop myself up on its cheery yellow throw pillows, and just breathe deeply.