Cancer doesn’t fight fair. It tries to take away everything that makes you feel like yourself – your breasts, your energy, you hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. It will try to take away the things you love doing by sapping your strength, flexibility, and optimism. What we must remember, in the midst of our struggle for survivorship, is that nothing can be taken away from us without our consent. Post-diagnosis, you must decide: are you going to get busy living, or get busy dying? Because this fight is to the finish, and if you don’t win, cancer will.
The thing about cancer is, it’s an easy way to die. If you want to check out, no one will blame you. They will blame the inadequacy of drugs, the insurmountable persistence of the disease, or bad luck. You can give up on life, and not even look like like you are. What is scary about cancer is how easy it is to concede when the fight hasn’t even really begun yet.
I was diagnosed with Triple-Negative, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma at 34, just two months shy of my 35th birthday. My cancer had developed very quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, from a lump that suddenly changed shape and spread to a lymph node in just eight months. I was lucky enough to keep my breasts, but my diagnosis, coupled with 2008’s economic downturn, send me into a financial tailspin as job opportunities dried up and my home’s value plummeted. I was 3000 miles from home, living on a farm in Kaua’i that I could no longer care for, facing a treatment plan that would make it virtually impossible to get a steady job. When I finally started chemo the day before Christmas Eve, I had no idea just how rough the months ahead would be.
Midway through AC, I faced gallbladder removal surgery. When I was done with that drug, I started Taxol and was plunged into a 4-day depression that had me considering Sylvia-Plath-like scenarios of crawling under my house to die and leave my troubles behind. Had it not been for the intervention of a Stage 4 survivor who said, very seriously, “You have to call in the troops. You can’t do this alone,” I might not have made it.
After three cycles of Taxol, my house still hadn’t sold. I had a bout with bronchitis and moved back to California to live with my sister and finish chemo. A month later, I developed shingles on my tailbone and was tempted to ask God, “When are the locusts coming?!” I was starting to feel like my life was a litany of misery, and realized that if I didn’t find a reason to keep going, I wouldn’t make it, and the last six months would be for naught. Thankfully, being back in California had reminded me of who I was, of the fighter and incurable optimist I had always been. Cancer had tried to take away my identity, and I had nearly consented in the face of so many challenges.
Five years is the survivorship milestone that lets us exhale. Make it to five years without a recurrence, and we can make it to ten. Facing an uncertain future you’re not that optimistic about, however, may very well be the biggest challenge to your recovery from cancer. To get you through it, commit to imagining a future you can look forward to. Set a big, big goal, preferably a physical one, that will take at least 5 years, and lots of sub-goals so you can reward yourself along the way. My personal goal was to do 8 breast cancer-related fundraising events a year, for the next five years, to complete 40 by my 40th birthday. Setting an ambitious, physically challenging goal accomplishes two things: it gives you something to look forward to, and improves your health along the way.
Another thing that helps build a future you can look forward to is finding away you can provide a service to other people who are going through what you’re going through. Think of how you can show others there IS a light at the end of the tunnel. For example, I struggled with my self-esteem in the wake of lost hair, eyebrows, and lashes, and found myself bordering on agoraphobic – terribly dangerous during a cancer fight, since human contact and enjoying the outside world are so key to staying strong in the fight. I conquered my fear by making a series of videos of me doing my makeup from scratch, to teach other women how to cope with chemo’s hair loss effects, and sharing them on the web. Serving as an inspiration and an example of strength, in whatever way you feel comfortable, will help other women feel less alone in their fight, and remind you that your struggle is neither purposeless nor futile.
Crucial in my recovery has been the support of other cancer survivors, who reminded me that this is not a one-time battle, but a prizefight, requiring a knockout in the first round, to prevent second and third rounds. I must enter the ring with the attitude of Muhammad Ali, believing I am greater than my cancer, and Tiger Woods, who, in an unguarded moment admitted that he never worried when players faced-off against him, but instead wondered, “Why do they even bother showing up?” I must have the hope of Michael J. Fox, the persistence of Christopher Reeve, and the sheer defiance of Lance Armstrong. Only then will I be able to show not just my cancer, but other women, that we can live stronger, and longer, than it can.
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