My Cancer Free Anniversary

There are many opinions on when you become cancer-free, a survivor. Does the clock start ticking when a scan or blood tests comes back with no evidence of cancer cells? Is it after chemotherapy…or after radiation? Or is it after the initial cancer surgery when you have clean margins…or the lymph nodes are clear? And I wonder why I even need to identify how long I’ve been cancer-free? Yet another line of questioning where I find myself turning to Cancer Services.

During the Breast Cancer Support Group, I realized that determining a cancer-free anniversary gives you a consistent point in time to pause for celebration. Regardless of where you are in the journey…still in the shadow of the disease or living your new “normal”…its good to acknowledge the life you have. And the timing of this milestone is a personal decision for each survivor.

I became a survivor two years ago today.

A tumor was removed from my left breast along with four lymph nodes on July 25, 2012. The doctor announced clean margins meaning that the tissue surrounding the tumor was free of cancer cells. The lymph nodes were also clean indicating that it is not likely the cancer had spread into other areas of my body. This was exactly what we had hoped and prayed to hear!

Based on the types of cancer identified in my pathology report, the following treatment plan was initiated. Along the way I experienced ever-changing side effects and medications, a trip to the emergency room, and additional surgeries. All of which warrant a separate post to provide details that may help a reader in the midst of their cancer journey.

  • 6 chemotherapy infusions (2 drugs) spread over 5 months
  • 17 clinical trial infusions (1 drug) spread over 1 year
  • 33 doses of radiation administered weekdays for 6.5 weeks
  • 1825 hormonal therapy tablets spread over 5 years, taken daily (suppresses absorption of estrogen)

So, Where am I today? 
Sitting here…thinking. Running over the ups and downs in my mind’s eye. I find it difficult to summarize the past 24 months. I keep navigating the maze of experiences and lessons searching for a single “AH-HA” phrase that pulls it all together. A word that describes what I have learned from this journey. Awareness…that’s it! In some areas of my life, I developed an awareness that didn’t exist before I embarked on this cancer journey. And in other areas, my existing awareness was magnified.

Awareness of Body
Cancer causes you to cultivate a keen awareness of your body…and all of its aches and pains and changes. Each trip to the doctor starts with the same questions. How are you feeling on a scale of 1 to 10? Where is your pain? Any new side effects? You learn to notice and report every minuscule change.

Awareness of Emotions
Emotions become raw and sometimes unpredictable. I experience a profound sadness when I learn of a new cancer diagnosis or get an update on treatment progress. My prayers for healing are accompanied by tears, sometimes I find myself sobbing. I suspect the deep emotion comes from remembering where I was at that point in the journey.

Awareness of Self
During my treatments, I found myself saying that I don’t want to be identified by cancer. These thoughts were associated with seeing someone wearing a slogan shirt or displaying prominent ribbons and jewelry. I anticipated getting back to my life and moving on. But now I realize that cancer is a part of who I am… and will be for the rest of my life. The emblems these ladies display are like medals won for a war fought at the molecular level. They are proud…AND they should be. And now I am one of them.

Awareness of Purpose
I am no longer content with a day-to-day life without purpose. I am now driven to help others dealing with cancer. Whether it be an ear to listen, a post to share my journey or fundraising. In everything I do now, I attempt to find a way to give back to honor those who made such an impact on me.

Awareness of the Fragility of Life
Once you have cancer, you are at a higher risk that it will return. I’ve made changes to my life to reduce this risk, but the risk still exists. I no longer wait for retirement to do “X”. I factor all of those “Xs” into daily life much the same way Erma Bombeck described in ‘If I Had My Life to Live Over’ from her book “Eat Less Cottage Cheese and More Ice Cream”. I am committed to a better balance between work, family and friends. I am reconnecting with people who had faded into the sidelines of my life while we were so busy living. I have also started creating to a bucket list of life experiences I want to share with my husband.

Awareness of Faith
From the beginning of this “adventure”, I have leaned on my faith. During my biopsy, I felt an amazing peace wash over my body. At that moment I knew I had cancer and that I would be OK. I believe that there is a reason I had to endure this experience though I may never know 100% why. Now that I’ve been writing and volunteering for Cancer Services, I believe God allowed me to go through this valley so I can touch lives in a way that could not be accomplished otherwise.

Leaning on my faith doesn’t mean I was strong every minute. I certainly found myself at low points and cried out for relief. My poem, Fortress in the Sand, provides a glimpse into the storm that I survived through the strength and grace of my God.

The Paradox
Cancer is everywhere. If you don’t have cancer, then you probably know at least one person who does. While I wish I had never embarked on this journey, I am thankful and happy for the journey. It has given me a deeper empathy and desire to help those dealing with cancer.

What is it like to have cancer?

I like to compare the cancer journey to riding a roller coaster in a hurricane. I would love to hear your analogy for cancer…please join the conversation to share.

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