By Laura Carfang
I always love meeting people who are a few years ahead of me in terms of living life after a breast cancer diagnosis. When I meet someone who is 5, 10, 15 + years out, I always ask if they could give me a hug and rub some of that longevity off on me (of course that was pre-Covid). This year, I am settling for virtual hugs.
I know that a breast cancer diagnosis changes your life instantaneously. I also understand that your medical care team is going to help you navigate treatment decisions and share information with you on an as-need-to-know basis since the entire experience is overwhelming. Plus, if my doctors tried to tell me how my life was going to be one year out, let alone 4 years after surgery, I am not sure I would have believed them anyways.
Before I jump into the current state celebrating my 4 year cancer-versary let me back up and share a bit about where I was this time, April of 2017. It was the eve of my breast conserving surgery, (aka, a partial mastectomy/lumpectomy) and the surgeon was going to also do reconstruction on the healthy breast to even things out as much as he could.
Since my lymph nodes tested positive for cancer, a full auxiliary node dissection was in order as well. While I was calm leading up to the surgery having researched as much as I possibly could, the journey to surgery was preceded by 5 months of chemotherapy, the ACT-HP regiment to be exact. I was heading into surgery bald, without eyelashes or eyebrows, and April 7th 2017 was going to be the day they would remove the cancer from my body.
What followed surgery was a month of radiation, 6 additional months of an oral chemotherapy called Xeloda, and a trial and error approach to aromatase inhibitors, Lupron and Zometa. Fast forward to spring of 2018, my pixie cut was fashionably in vogue, my body adjusted to the mood swings, hot flashes and joint pain from Letrozole and Lupron, and I was back to the daily grind commuting to work and grateful to be alive.
Things didn’t snap back to the way life was before my diagnosis. I think the tail end of 2016 to 2018 was a blur yet I recall every detail; the weekly doctor visits, the infusions, the pricks, sticks, pokes, and prods and radiation burns.
As I come to celebrate the 4 years since my surgery, which is what I refer to as my “cancer-versary”, below is the update on the current state of affairs. I’d like to point out that cancer-versaries are different for everyone. Some people choose the date they were diagnosed, the date they finished chemo, the date, the date, the date. There are so many dates, pick one and celebrate how far you have come no matter if you are early stage or late stage. Just celebrate!
4 Years Post -Op
Fear of Recurrence:
There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t think about the cancer returning. At first, it was every little cough, bone pain or headache and I’d immediately assumed the cancer had spread. 4 years later, I don’t think about it as often but I still google and remind myself of the stats and percentages feeling like I am walking in a minefield and at any moment, my world could be shattered yet again with the words you have breast cancer.
You don’t need a breast cancer diagnosis to toy with the question of “who am I?” It’s natural that we give ourselves titles anywhere from “mom”, “sister”, “doctor” to “friend”, “spouse” and “teacher”. Just look at social media, people try and come up with a 150 character statement on Instagram to sum up who they are! And now, after a diagnosis, I am lost in the maze of identity. I never saw myself as “the patient” but reflecting back on my experience, that is exactly what I was, in my yellow hospital socks and blue Johnny. Am I the “survivor” because I made it through something? Am I the “person living with a breast cancer diagnosis” because it happened and could strike again? Words matter, language matters, and our mindset matters! I struggle with the words. Sometimes it’s just easier to tell someone I am a “survivor” because the term has become so common place and those not diagnosed with breast cancer understand what that means. But aren’t we all surviving something?
The obvious one here is loss of a body part (or parts). But loss of a breast doesn’t make me any less feminine, or female. There is loss that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis beyond the physical. For many it could also mean the loss of ovaries, or of never having biological children. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a person diagnosed with breast cancer that I’ve met who has said that they too have lost friends. Friends who do not know what to say, so they say nothing, they retract, they vanish.
Four years since the cancer has been removed from my body and I feel like I am still processing my diagnosis every single day. Some days, more than others, but again, there is no road map. On the good days, I am sky high. High as a kite loving life, loving my breast cancer family, loving the outdoors and everything life has to offer. On the not so positive days I curse the meds, the meds to treat the med’s side effects, the lingering reminder of the long term side effects such as lymphedema, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. A lot of this may be invisible to someone who doesn’t know my full story, but don’t we all have a cross we are bearing?
Cancer has given me perspective. It has given me an appreciation for the time I do have on this planet and to make the most of every second that I have. But you don’t need cancer to awaken you to this notion. Some wake up with the Joie de vivre overflowing in their coffee cup every morning. Others have experienced a birth, or a loss of a loved one to remind them that today matters, today counts. You matter!
If I have to sum up my experience to date, or even try and figure out what life ahead holds, I don’t think I could tell you. It’s unchartered territory as everyone’s experience is unique, and perhaps that is maybe why the doctors never tell you what to expect in life after a cancer diagnosis. There is no roadmap, but somehow we figure it out.
Follow Laura on Social at @LauraCarfang & IG and Twitter