Let me say at the outset that I do not agree with anyone who says that cancer is a ‘gift.’
Breast cancer is a devastating illness that has wrought havoc on my life, my family and my body. And, one day, it is very likely that cancer will kill me.
What cancer has done, is change my life dramatically.
As I write this, I am forty years old. I was thirty-eight when I was diagnosed. I am also the mother of two boys who are now nine and four years old.
Before my diagnosis, I was a person who was someone to whom my spouse referred as very “work-identified”.
Work was always something I was good at. What I felt I did best. What I didn’t admit to anyone, even myself, was that if work didn’t come first in my life, it was tied for first place.
Then came the day that my oncologist said: “No insurance company would ever expect you to work again.”
I was at a career high when I found the lump. A new job was on the horizon and I was feeling confident and excited about my future.
It was a Friday night, in early December of 2006. I was getting undressed and my right hand brushed against what felt like a walnut on the right side of my breast.
By the time I had my mastectomy, two months later, the walnut had grown into a plum and I had two palpable lumps under my arm.
Surgery was followed by six very aggressive chemotherapy treatments and five weeks of radiation. A few weeks after I put treatment behind me, I returned triumphantly to work.
And three weeks after that, in late October 2006, I felt a stitch in my side that would not go away. I tried to ignore it, assuming I had pulled a muscle. But when a dull ache led to sharp pain and the right side of my abdomen became swollen, I began to fear the worst.
Less than two weeks and a round of tests later, the worst was confirmed. My oncologist told me I had “years not decades.” The next few weeks passed in a haze of shock and pain.
The first weeks of treatment were exhausting and traumatic, as I sought to cope with the news and the effects of treatment. I spent some time in hospital due to a low white blood count and experienced some very intense reactions to one of the drugs I was taking. I also began to feel better and to notice that the abdominal swelling had begun to recede.
I responded very well to treatment. By June 2007, the once “innumerable tumours” on my liver had disappeared, leaving only scars in their place. My oncologist called these results “spectacular.”
I have now had four clean scans and am considered to be in remission, although I continue with monthly treatments of chemotherapy and herceptin. I have not yet returned to work (and I am doubtful that I ever will) but, aside from the few days after treatment, I feel strong and healthy.
And I am happy.
I have learned that having metastatic cancer doesn’t mean my life is over.
Not being able to go to work doesn’t mean my life is over.
My life has changed irrevocably and, most of the time, I am OK with that.
I have one breast, lymphedema in my chest and arm, a touch of frozen shoulder. I am post-menopausal and my once hour-glass figure now more closely resembles a pear.
I will be in treatment for the rest of my life. I’ve also got more time for my kids (I even taught more than a dozen Grade 4 students in my son’s class how to knit!). I go for long walks. I write. My blog has connected me with a wonderful online community. And my marriage has never been stronger.
I have begun to plan, tentatively, for the future.
In some ways I feel that cancer has made me a more well-rounded person.
These are just a few parts of my identity.
Cancer is not a gift but it has not taken everything away. It has made me appreciate all that is good in my life. And it has helped me to learn a great deal about myself.
You can read more of my writing at Not Just About Cancer.