It has been two years since my diagnosis of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. It is still hard to wrap my brain around November of 2015. The doctor visits began with, “this doesn’t look good” and ended with “this is incurable”. Ringing in 2018 seemed unachievable back then. Yet, here I am living my best life…with cancer.
After a cancer diagnosis you immediately begin cursing the beast for everything that it has taken away from you. Over time however, cancer begins to teach you things about yourself, and others. Ironically, while my thoughts were focused on death, cancer was teaching me to live!
Chemotherapy sucks. You lose your hair, your strength, you feel like crap, and it is without a doubt, terrifying. I recall my first infusion, they inserted a rather large needle directly into the port in my chest and told me to relax. Ha! I immediately panicked, anxiety kicked in and I could not breathe. I thought for certain I was having an allergic reaction. I recall seeing my Dad sitting across from me, tears in his eyes. I kept staring at him and with my eyes screaming, “they are killing me Daddy!” The nurses ran over to me and one, extra special nurse, whispered a prayer in my ear. I calmed down, took a deep breathe and so it all began. Chemo, while it landed me in the hospital for a week, did it’s job well and eradicated the cancer from my breast and bones. Today, a daily oral dose keeps the cancer in my liver at bay. But that is not the only role that chemo has played in my journey. Chemotherapy was the first lesson.
Chemo taught me to be fearless. If you know me at all, you know that fear has always been a big part of my life. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I am the youngest in our family. My Mom, recognizing my struggle with fear early on, gave me a stuffed lion and named it “Courage”. I still have this lion to this day. As a child, Courage the lion always reminded me to be brave when I was facing something frightening. Heck, I even took that tattered, old thing to my first appointment. Then at age 44, Chemotherapy taught me to be brave. Today, I am fearless. I march in an out of that hospital like the boss of my life. No lion, no fear! Okay, I am lyin’…spiders still scare the crap out of me.
Cancer has taught me to be humble. I always thought of myself as someone who put others first. However, cancer begins to change the way you look, the way you move, the way you interact with others, and the way that you depend on others. Cancer has you asking anyone who will listen, “why me?” Right in the middle of the chaos, when I looked in the mirror and barely recognized the bald lady I saw, I realized maybe this isn’t even about me? Perhaps, I have been placing far too much emphasis on my own importance. Cancer does not just affect my life, my goals, or my dreams. My family is battling cancer. My friends are battling cancer. Cancer did not simply spread throughout my body but throughout my life. People I love dearly, let me down. People I barely knew, stepped up. Cancer is not just defining who I am in this world but it is defining everyone around me.
Cancer has taught me about control-specifically what is in my control versus what is out of my hands. I can ONLY control my own attitude and perspective. I cannot control unavoidable life interruptions. I can ONLY control my own demeanor and how I handle or confront social issues and challenges. I cannot control relational or occupational stressors. Life happens whether you like it or not so best to focus on what is within your power to change rather than that which is not. Too often I found myself feeling sorry for myself. What good does that do for anyone? Cancer taught me that I have a choice every morning when I wake up. Is this going to be a good day or a bad one? When I was behind a car going 20 mph in a 40 mph lane, cancer whispered, “what is your rush?”
Cancer has taught me to have faith. My parents and childhood priest might argue they taught me to have faith and, in many ways, they did. However, cancer made my faith tangible. I feel God like I have never felt Him before. Today, I view cancer as a blessing and accept it with grace.
And finally, cancer has taught me that while I can live a healthy lifestyle and follow all of the cancer treatment “rules”, my body has a mind of it’s own.
Ahhhh….Lesson Five: cancer has a sense of humor. Part of my treatment plan is managing weight gain. Easier said than done! I have estrogen receptive cancer (ER+) so gaining fat tissue can increase my chance of recurrence by raising my estrogen levels. In an effort to shut down hormones in my body, they removed my ovaries and put me on all kinds of medications, sending me directly into menopause. Have you ever told a menopausal women she cannot have a piece of chocolate? Furthermore, my medications make my joints sore so I walk like an elderly lady and I fall… a lot. Heck, I am not naming any names but these meds even make some cancer patients poop their pants…while exercising…in a park…surrounded by an entire class of people. Ha, ha you are so funny, cancer.
Needless to say, I have learned a great deal in the last two years. Professor “C” has taught me lessons in life I never even knew I needed to learn. I guess my hope for all of you is that you will read this and even study some of these lessons on your own. I would rather you learn them from me and never have to take this class.
Happy New Year!
Daisy and “Courage” the lion