I was 28 when I heard the words that changed my world forever. “You have breast cancer.” At the time I was working full time, finishing my graduate degree, and living a healthy life. My diagnosis completely knocked my life into a new reality that was dark and frightening. I did not look or feel sick, but I had a tiny lump that I mentioned to my doctor, and that was where it began.
I’m choosing to write about this now because October is breast cancer awareness month and it always brings on mixed emotions. Sadness at those we’ve lost, pain for those engaged in the battle and hope that we are going to find a cure for this vicious disease. Every October I participate in different ways, but this year I wanted to share more of my experience. This is what I’d like you to know about being a young breast cancer survivor:
1. There is no cure for breast cancer and women continue to die everyday. There is a misconception that this disease is easy to treat. Again, it is still a fact that breast cancer does NOT have a cure and while some prognosis are better than others, breast cancer can come back, even years after you have shown to have NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE.
2. Eight years after my diagnosis I still take a daily medication and while you may never hear me complain about it, there are side effects. It is recommended that I take this medication for ten years following my initial treatment. When you are in your 20’s and you imagine ten years of medical treatment it seems impossible. It is life saving and a blessing to have it, but it is also a daily reminder of my past with cancer.
3. Medical research saves lives and quite possibly saved mine. Based on the kind of cancer that I had, I was able to take a “new” drug called Herceptin. It only exists because of extensive research which involves lots of $$$$ and brave end-stage patients that agree to try new drugs. This drug became available two years before I was diagnosed and without it my odds of survival would have been much lower. There was even a Lifetime movie made about the breakthrough starring Mr. Harry Connick Jr.
4. A mastectomy does not mean you get a free, new pair of boobs. Yes, several people made that comment to me while I was in treatment. (Why?? Why would you say that to anyone? Please don’t ever say that to anyone.) Quite the contrary. Having a double mastectomy means that you lose a part of yourself and gain significant scars. It means a painful surgery and a long healing process. It means fighting to gain acceptance of a new version of the most intimate parts of your body. It steals a part of your sexuality and it robs you of the basic human choice of breastfeeding your children. It is often all of these things right before beginning six months of chemotherapy. It leaves scars, both physical and emotional. While the procedure and outcomes have improved over the years, do not believe that a mastectomy is an easy solution.
5. Just because your hair has grown back does not mean that you are “finished.” After going through the hell that is cancer treatment you are a different person and it takes time to find your new normal. We have gone down a tumultuous road and it takes time to heal. That can mean that relationships change, you make lifestyle changes, or you look at the world in a new way. Be gentle with someone who has gone through treatment, even if it’s two years later. Just because we look fine again does not always mean that it’s done.
6. As survivors, we are glad there is extra awareness every October, but we are always concerned about who benefits from all the pink. First, read the fine print on anything you purchase and see what they are actually doing with your dollars. Second, keep in mind that Avon and Komen get tons of money and they have major corporate sponsors, so don’t worry about them. What’s better than buying pink socks and glitter boas? Donating to organizations that directly benefit research and women like www.metavivor.com or http://www.pinkdaisyproject.com. If you want to give, make a smart donation. Becoming a cancer survivor changed my life forever. Chances are that you know someone who has been touched by the disease. This year, make October count and do something meaningful. Make a donation to a research program or an organization that directly helps women in treatment. If you personally know a survivor, reach out. Finally, if you’re putting off having yourself checked, please make sure you make that appointment. It could be the most important thing you do this month.