This article was submitted to us by Maya *(name changed) She is a brilliant person, a beautiful author, and a breast cancer survivor. This is her story. Team Blank Slate Chronicles thanks Maya for doing this. We wish her good health and happiness!
“Can you come in today to discuss your test results?”, the nurse’s voice echoed on my cell. Something was off in that statement. I stopped short in my tracks.
I just celebrated my fortieth birthday!
“Sure, how long is she available today?”, I asked – trying to find a time later in the day, optimizing as I always do, to not cancel too many meetings.
“She’s here till 6. Can your husband accompany you?”, the nurse asks.
Please don’t make me cancel my trip to South America next month!
“Let me see if he can. We’ll see you at 5:30 pm”.
Everything changed that day.
That weekend, a heavily tattooed, pink haired employee at Whole Foods check-out counter asked, “How are you doing today?”
I’ve just got a diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer.
“Good. How are you today?”, I return the nicety.
“Waiting to finish off my shift! Any fun plans for the weekend?”, she asks again.
Well, I plan to sift through research to make treatment decisions that are literally life or death. I will be moping – complaining about losing a vacation. And I will be refusing to acknowledge that the lost vacation is not the worst of my worries.
“Nothing much”, I responded, wanting to cut the conversation short and head home.
Fast forward. One and a half years.
“How are you today?”, the spin instructor at the gym asks.
“Great!”, I respond and I meant it.
I used to cringe when anyone referred to the infliction of the pain and suffering that cancer treatment is, and called it a cancer journey. Journey, to me, is a beautiful thing. One picks a destination, a route and then soaks in enriching experiences along the way. There’s a modicum of choice. Was there a choice in the destination, the route and the experiences in this case? Perhaps. You be the judge.
Awareness 1: Self Advocacy
I wouldn’t be writing this article today if my cancer hadn’t been found and treated.
We are taught to do self-exams and look for lumps. Mine didn’t start out as a lump.
We are asked to do mammograms after we turn forty. I had two mammograms before I was forty and one 4 months before the biopsy results found cancer. The mammograms did not detect any abnormality.
Younger folks often have denser breasts which make it harder to detect irregularities.
Even when the tests showed nothing, I went back because one breast felt different from the other, till we had a biopsy.
Remember that one in eight woman gets breast cancer in their lifetimes. If detected early it might be treatable. Check, test and if you still feel something isn’t right, ask for more tests.
Awareness 2: Moving Beyond Denial and Hopelessness
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.
― Gilda Radner
Cancer. A word that evokes fear. Helplessness. Hopelessness.
All those reactions are unproductive. They may be unavoidable for some period. If you or a loved one is diagnosed, work on not letting either of those feelings cloud your clarity of thought.
Once diagnosed, pretending it’s all going to be okay magically won’t help. But giving in to fear or hopelessness won’t help either.
Acknowledge the reality and then work on addressing the fear.
Reality Check 1: Gratitude
Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. William Arthur Ward
My first reaction was frustration and anger. Jealousy even – as I looked at the picture perfect lives of friends and family streaming on Facebook and Instagram. In the seven stages of grief, I definitely went directly to anger – skipping shock and denial.
This was a shitty situation to be in – how could there even be anything to be thankful for? But there was. There always is something!
I had health insurance and access to a couple of cancer centers at the cutting edge of research close to where I lived. My workplace was supremely supportive and I had friends and family who were ready to be there for me.
Gratitude doesn’t come naturally in the face of such disasters. However, gratitude – devoid of any feelings of entitlement, is what keeps us grounded.
Reality Check 2: All life is terminal.
Even if you have a terminal disease, you don’t have to sit down and mope. Enjoy life and challenge the illness that you have. – Nelson Mandela
This was not supposed to be my story. I didn’t believe in luck, fate, destiny or divine interventions. Particularly for the atheist types like me. There’s is no resorting to prayer. I had worked very hard for as long as I remember to build a life and seeing it potentially slipping away is a hard blow – and that’s putting it mildly.
But here’s the thing – no one gets out of this life alive! Life is terminal by the very definition of it.
Mortality is what makes it interesting. Yes, life is terminal, but we do not have to stop living!
Get the anger out of your system if there is. That self-pity? Shove it away.
I’m not suggesting to be in denial. Keep it real. You may or may not be fine – but there is no need to wallow in it.
Over the next several days, I asked myself and my significant other several times – if this was it, the end of life, would I be content? And the answer was a resounding yes.
And at that moment something changed. It didn’t mean I was losing the desire to fight. It meant I would be ok with whatever might be the outcome.
Action Plan 1: What do you have power over?
“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
When cancer strikes, it really feels life is spinning out of control. But there are always some things we do have control over.
I spent weeks educating myself on breast cancer. Being able to speak and understand the language made it so much easier to make treatment decisions and be able to objectively analyze.
Stages. Grades. Hormone Receptor Status. Her2 status. Chemo drugs. Common cocktails for the various scenarios. Targeted therapies for Her2 positive cancers. Clinical trials. Radiation. Surgeries. Reconstruction options. Learned about it all.
Once treatment started, I planned out my days to the T. Office hours interspersed with doctor office visits. Chemo every Friday after work. Cook on Saturdays when I was high energy from the steroids and stock up home cooked food for the week. Work from home on Mondays – when I’d be the most depleted. Walk every day for at least half an hour. Write.
Worked like a charm for the twelve weeks of chemotherapy.
When radiation started, I scheduled the sessions on the way to work every morning for five weeks. Twenty-five sessions seem daunting and it was. But – scheduling it as if it was a morning gym visit made it less overwhelming.
I controlled my schedule, diet, treatment decisions. And that was quite empowering.
Action Plan 2: Find Joy.
How can one find joy in the aftermath of a life-altering event when facing mortality head on?
Perfect happiness is a beautiful sunset, the giggle of a grandchild, the first snowfall. It’s the little things that make happy moments, not the grand events. Joy comes in sips, not gulps. Sharon Draper
None of the happy moments are usurped by the unwelcome grand event. There are still sunsets, giggles, and the rain. There is still the walk in the park. And the little indulgent shopping if that’s what rocks your boat. Fill your life with those little sips.
It will be rocky sometimes when the ship is elusive. Build a thick skin, cut out any negativity around yourself and enable your tribe to help you. Sometimes that means asking people for what you need.
Find a tribe that you can rely on. Not all relationships will survive this. Some new relationships might develop. Is there a support group that you can lean on?
Action Plan 3: Reprioritize
I’m a planner. I have lists and lists of lists. And then life happens.
But life, should not have the power over you, to take all of your well-laid plans and wreak havoc. I sat down one day while chemo was underway to whip out my bucket list and prioritize ruthlessly.
I might have a few years. I might have twenty. Or forty. No one can tell for sure.
I asked myself – what dreams/desires are non-negotiable if I had two years. And what things needed to be in order? Everything else would be the cherry on top.
So I built yet another list. A ruthlessly pared-down list that I continue to refine and follow passionately. My days are fuller than ever before.
That’s it. Awareness. Reality Checks. And Action Plans. Maybe that will get you through the tough patch?
My work responsibilities tripled last year, traveled widely, wrote a lot – published a short story and a research paper, drove out in the middle of the night to photograph the night sky, volunteered for a political campaign, decorated our new home, spend some intense time with family, and I was also diagnosed with cancer.
Some relationships got stronger, I lost some and I also gained a whole new tribe.
I am alive today. Happy. Content. Thriving. Tomorrow is another day.