The other day I looked at the calendar and was surprised to realize that it’s almost been two years since finishing treatment for breast cancer. Some days it seems long ago. Maybe because a devastating, global pandemic slid in shortly after treatment ended. Or maybe because I fiercely cleared that cancer, preparing for the next chapter of living beyond three cancers.
Pausing to appreciate these days
Many of you know that I often take time around each cancer anniversary to reflect on my journey. For me, it serves as an important reminder of my strength, vulnerability, motivation, and lessons learned.
Being diagnosed with any cancer is heartbreaking, shocking and terrifying. No one wants to hear ‘you have cancer’ ever, let alone three times.
Life is never the same mentally, emotionally and often physically after a cancer diagnosis. And more often than not, managing treatment or cancer side effects is a life-long job.
A titanium rod in place of most of my femur and tibia, multiple skin checks a year, numerous check ups at different doctors to ensure my organs stay healthy after chemo and radiation, a daily estrogen inhibitor for the next 3-5 years and another surgery to remove my ovaries and tubes to help lower any risk of breast cancer recurrence, being shoved into menopause and the jollies of that (read my blog about infertility issues facing cancer survivors) are a few examples of life after treatment.
In between all this, my dad was diagnosed with and died from multiple myeloma. His death shattered my family. Then my younger sister was diagnosed with melanoma the year before my breast cancer diagnosis. So, yes, it has been a long, twisted road.
I share this because so many people think that cancer ends when treatment does. Maybe for some, physically it does. But the emotional and mental effects of cancer live on for many (read my tips for mental health support).
Choosing to overcome obstacles
My sister asked me the other day how I manage the anxiety, worry, fear related to cancer. How do I not let these emotions overwhelm me? How do I balance the heavy emotions to find my smile, joy and optimism? Some days I don’t. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve cried in the shower. Sat for hours on the floor because I couldn’t figure out how to face the day. Screamed into a pillow. Felt jealousy (and anger) at those who seem to take their health for granted. Ignored calls from people who would ask how I was doing when I was afraid to face that answer.
And all of those moments are okay. They are part of life, whether cancer or something else. It’s okay to not be okay (read my post).
But what I’ve also learned about living beyond three cancers is that there is more light than darkness, beauty than ugly, kindness than hate, opportunities than obstacles. Sometimes we simply have to look a little harder. Some days we maybe even need to ask for help.
I share my story, the good and bad, to help change the conversation about cancer survivorship. To raise awareness of the needs of cancer survivors, from healthcare access to mental health support to stopping the judgement when someone chooses their own path for treatment or other. I share my story because I am living beyond three cancers with passion and purpose. I choose to overcome obstacles by looking for opportunities along this journey.
More than a cancer survivor
Cancer will not define me. It will not run my life. Nor be the boss of me. Yes, it may knock me down. It may upend my plans. Even pull me down into despair. But never for long. Because if I have learned anything from living beyond three cancers, it is that I am stronger, kinder, happier, braver, and so much more than any disease will ever be. I am open to the possibilities that life has to offer, willing to walk down unknown paths toward optimism and greatness. I will seek sunshine in the darkness of this disease, and if I have to, I’ll be the damn sunshine.
Being alive after three cancers makes me feel incredibly grateful and blessed. Not just alive, but thriving! However, being a cancer survivor is just one part of who I am. Daughter. Aunt. Sister. Friend. Outdoorswoman. Dreamer. Writer. Planner. Traveler. Speaker. Leader. Giver. Warrior. So much more.
What is life like living beyond three cancers?
I struggle to really put into words or express what it means to me and feels like to be alive after three cancers. My heart is often overwhelmed with gratitude. Tears of gratitude, love and relief sometimes fall. What is life like living beyond three cancers? It is the most precious and breathtaking thing. Full of gratitude, beauty, humility, some challenges, smiles, laughter, love, patience (most days). And so much more.
I often ask myself ‘what else is possible?’ My answer: A LOT.
A note about this curly hair
I was fortunate to use cold cap therapy during chemo two years ago. Cold cap therapy, or cold capping, is the process of “narrowing the blood vessels beneath the skin of the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles. With less chemotherapy medicine in the follicles, the hair may be less likely to fall out.” (breastcancer.org) Overall, I lost 40-50% of my hair. It was tough to lose even that much, and my hair follicles dramatically thinned. However, most people, especially those who didn’t really know me before cold capping, never knew I was in chemo unless I told them. So it was cool to feel sort of ‘normal’ on the midst of cancer chaos. It didn’t make chemo easier, just a little more bearable.
And the other cool thing about cold capping is that my hair started growing back before my last chemo treatment! Within a year I had almost all new hair growth….curly too! Two years later, I’ve had a few good hair cuts, my hair is still curly and almost as thick as it was before chemo (read my blog about lessons learned from cold capping).
As I’ve shared in previous posts and my Instagram posts, cold capping is a lot of work (read my blog about pros/cons of cold capping). There’s no guarantee you will save any of your hair (although it helps preserve your hair follicles so hair grows back faster). I’ve been bald for 15 months from bone cancer chemo and now saved my hair. Truthfully, it is shattering to experience either as they both are results of a cancer diagnosis. There are no good/bad solutions. It’s simply what works for you.