It happened on a normal day one afternoon in mid-August : I got a call at work from my oncologist’s office. The call was to inform me that my blood results from a regular bi-annual post-cancer check-up was suspicious and might indicate a return of the breast cancer that had plagued me 4 1/2 years earlier.
As I groped for a chair while trying to assess what the person on the other end of the conversation was telling me, I tried to suppress the sensation of dread that overpowered my body. I had my orders: a PET scan to establish if, or not, I had a relapse. Within a few days, I had a call from my oncologist to confirm that I had, indeed, metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in my bones. My immediate reaction was one of power – “OK, how do I cure this? What do we need to do? Should I have a bone marrow transplant?” My doctor repeated on three occasions while I babbled on that MBC is an incurable disease. I was completely horrified and deflated and realized, with mounting dread, that my life from this moment would never again be the same.
Over the course of the following months, I tried to reconcile my idea of what life had been to how it was going to be and knew that for me to be happy, I had to rely solely on my own resources. This was something that only I could do. The best medical care was available to me and that was the first and crucial fact that was apparent – my body would be taken care of; my spirit would be mine to manage.
I have not, however, left my treatment to chance. I have educated myself and am aware of the need to be informed and when I am not fully satisfied with the treatment options offered to me at a specific clinic or by my current oncologist, I am willing to make the difficult decision to find someone, or someplace, that can offer better options. I have had a number of oncologists and, after my own research, I discovered that I could access a number of medical trials through Virginia Cancer Specialists. It is very important to find a center of excellence and I have been thoroughly satisfied and confident that VCS is giving me the best possible treatment for my disease.
I developed a strategy over time that has worked well for me. I can say that I am truly happy and enjoying life. I have been to my children’s weddings and multiple graduations. Since my diagnosis, I have enjoyed 7 Christmases, birthdays, hundreds of beautiful walks, visits to see my family and friends, and all the wonderful events that are a part of everyday life. At some point in the acceptance of my new reality, I sensed that cancer now lives with ME, whereas, in the early days, I lived with IT.
I changed how I look at life. I don’t do the “what if, why me?” thing. It is what it is; the world owes me nothing and thinking that it does only creates self-pity and negativity, so I don’t go there. I have learned to actively change my train of thought when the dream of a cancer-free existence floats into my brain. The big picture has been replaced by being in and relishing, the present moment.
I have learned not to make excuses because of my disease; I now have cancer and I accept and adapt to this way of life. If I’m tired, I sleep; if I’m anxious, I walk; if I’m sleepless, I meditate or listen to music. It is what it is and none of it is earth-shattering – life as we know it will not come to a screeching halt if I take a 2-hour nap! My children and husband will survive without me. I am here, like the billions of people who have been and gone before me, for an allotted time and if I leave a lasting legacy of having raised four wonderful children, then I have done well.
A surprising change I have made is that I have freed myself from the shackles of organized religion and now feel truly worthy of God’s love for the first time in my life. I feel as if I am exactly where I am meant to be and that I am being watched over by someone or something greater than any of us can comprehend. I don’t know what, if anything, lies in store for me after death but death no longer frightens me.
I have changed from needing to be in control of events, large and small, and realize now that if everything does not go according to plan, that most outcomes will be just fine anyway. To “go with the flow” is much more enjoyable, interesting, and fun; we should all do it more often!
One change that I did not actively choose was to be bald. But even that was perfectly OK. Normally I am not a “limelight” type but I felt brave and strong as a bald woman and wanted to show people that I was taking chemotherapy but still enjoying many aspects of life. I did not wear a wig and stopped worrying about head covering when I forgot on a few occasions to wear a scarf going out. I hope I made a difference then and perhaps gave strength and courage to someone who now has to face chemotherapy.
I have changed from a very nervous and reluctant public speaker to one who has spoken on numerous occasions to large groups in order to tell my story. Passion seems to take over, the butterflies in my stomach fly away, and I am this other person hoping to educate people about metastatic disease and the need for more research dollars than we currently get.
I have no desire to die; I fear a painful end and am not naive about the deterioration that I will endure before cancer has had its way with me. I have learned that life is truly a gift and that I cannot dictate where it will take me but it is up to me seize every opportunity, to derive pleasure in the smallest of things, and never take good health for granted.