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I was freaked out by turning 50 years old

Detail from illustration by Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail

I turned 50 last month and it felt like an out-of-body experience. I was ambivalent, and guilty about feeling so ambivalent.

I know that millions of people are turning 50 this year and next year and the year after that. I'm in good company. True, this birthday gives many people their first sense of their own mortality. But I have already stared death in the face. Twice. Been there, done that. This should be easy. So why was I so freaked out?

I was only 36 the first time I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. My son was 7 and my twin girls were 2. I went through chemotherapy from May through August of 1997. The weekend after my last round of chemo, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in Paris. I was revved up from my medication and couldn't sleep, so I watched the whole thing unfold live in the early hours of the morning.

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Her death was shocking to me in a way that was different from other people's responses. We were the same age. She had just turned 36 and had been on the cover of Vanity Fair looking happy and gorgeous. In seconds, she was gone, while I was lying in bed with a bandana covering my bald head, still alive. This didn't make sense, and I like things that make sense. It was a wake-up call.

That isn't to say I started running marathons and training for dragon-boat races. I have never been that type, even though I wish I were. I envy the men and women I read about in articles who have survived this illness and become physical machines. I tend to go inward instead. Articles don't get written about those kinds of people - it's kind of depressing.

I remember asking my first doctor whether she thought I would be alive for my son's bar mitzvah six years down the road. She seemed confident that I would. Then I pushed further (as I am known to do) and asked her what she thought the odds were of being at his wedding. I didn't like her response, so despite her stellar clinical reputation, I fired her and moved on.

My mother had just turned 56 when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died two weeks later. I was 28 at the time and pregnant with my son. It was cruel. It made no sense. But if 56 was young, what was 36? What would that do to my kids? One of my daughters had just been diagnosed with autism. Would either of them even remember anything about me?

I had been diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a more chronic form of the disease. It wasn't like the typical cancer trajectory where the longer you are cancer-free, the more likely you are to be cured. I joked that this was more like a mutual fund ad disclaimer: Past performance was no indicator of future results. So while every clean CT scan was a huge relief, it meant nothing for my future, even though my new doctor used to joke about who would take care of me after he retired.

When I turned 40, I was thrilled and relieved to be alive. My husband arranged a birthday weekend full of dinners and time spent with my closest friends and family. I felt as though it was a legitimate time for celebration and gratitude. I can't believe that was a decade ago.

In late 2008, I felt a node. That's how it had started last time, although back then I had also been sick and weak for months with a cough that would not go away. This time, all I felt was the node. It turned out to be a more aggressive strain than the follicular lymphoma. Ironically, my doctor had just retired.

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The first time I had been a poster child for cancer treatment. I felt much better while on chemo because I had been so sick prior to that. It was a sign that the treatment was working.

I threw up only once in six months and I had loads of energy. I wrote poems to my lymph nodes, did yoga, meditated, read books and took classes about the healing journey. I walked and took the subway to my chemo sessions. I drank gallons of green tea, took all kinds of supplements and stayed away from people who looked at me as if I was already dead.

The second time around was not as much fun, as I liked to put it. I was angry and I rebelled. I didn't feel sick before I found the node and this time the chemo knocked me off my feet in a way that humbled me like nothing else. I still have not bounced back - physically or emotionally. I was too tired to read or focus. I couldn't walk to the subway and sometimes I couldn't even walk up and down the stairs in my house.

So I was wary about celebrating this birthday despite being cancer-free. I am sure that might anger those who have lost loved ones at an early age to disease or other tragedies, but I am not apologizing for this ambivalence. I am trying to make peace with it.

On the other hand, maybe it is a positive sign that I can't reconcile turning 50. Doesn't that make me more like everybody else? I still look in the mirror and ask myself, "How did that happen?" My son is in his third year of university and my daughters are about to turn 16. Huh? I see a cute guy in a store or restaurant and realize I am old enough to be his mother.

I know I am not alone, though. My father is about to turn 80 and my uncle will be 90 later this year. They are having the same out-of-body experiences thinking about those numbers, and they have never had cancer. That makes me feel better.

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Tammy Starr lives in Toronto.

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