A man and a woman sitting at a kitchen table

10 Lessons I Learned Early On in My Journey With Breast Cancer

Breast cancer. Who – me? Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. That certainly wasn’t in my life plan! I was diagnosed in January 2016, and these are some of the valuable lessons I learned early on in my journey. 

1. There is a difference between a crisis and an emergency. 

It was an emotional crisis to hear my diagnosis, but I learned it was not an emergency. In the midst of the initial shock, tears and sleepless nights, there was time for me to come up for air. A good friend recommended “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book,” and I devoured it. It was a great crash course in breast cancer. It took me three weeks to finalize a treatment plan, during which I had further testing, visited the surgeon and oncologist, and sought a second oncologist’s opinion. 

2. Trust my gut.

My brother gave me some wise advice the first week I was diagnosed. He said, “Sis, sooner or later you’ll be faced with decisions only you can make. You need to trust your gut.”

My oncologist recommended four months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery. He also mentioned that I qualified for a clinical trial that would use a pill to cut off the estrogen supply. It involved a second breast biopsy besides my initial one, and a third biopsy after the first month of treatment, so he didn’t think many women would want to participate. Mark and I were at the check-out desk scheduling the appointment for my chemo port placement when I asked him to go back and see if they would give us the clinical trial papers so I could look them over. I spent the weekend stewing over chemotherapy side effects versus the possible risks of the clinical trial. Early Monday morning I read through the clinical trial again and my gut clearly told me, “It’s the right thing to do.” My cancer is 100 percent estrogen receptor positive and slow growing. Since chemotherapy works to destroy cells with rapid growth, my gut told me that cutting off the estrogen supply trumped chemo. It was a relief to cancel the port placement appointment.

3. There is no turning back.

That is the thing about cancer. You have to make treatment decisions, and you will never know the outcome of the options you didn’t choose. Even if you change course midstream, you can’t necessarily go back and start over. I remember crying for two days before I started my pills. I wanted to stay “normal” for a while longer. Then I realized that normal had already changed, and what I really wanted was to be post-treatment. There was no way to get to post-treatment unless I let go of being pre-treatment.

4. Get organized.

I was quickly accumulating pamphlets and reports from my office visits and tests. I knew it was time to get organized. We bought four nesting bins: medical records, billing information, cards and letters, and miscellaneous handouts. I take a small notebook to every appointment with a list of questions and write down the answers on the spot. I also keep a record of the date of every office visit and procedure. I vowed that cancer was not going to take over our kitchen table. Instead, I have it neatly stacked in the corner.

5. Be willing to accept help from unexpected places, and don’t expect help from expected places.

Mark and I have repeated this advice to each other more than any other we have received so far. It came from a physician friend two days after my diagnosis. I am a private person, but we soon realized that people can’t reach out if they don’t know anything is wrong. To balance that, I also learned it is OK to only share when you are ready. If people ask questions that are too personal, I feel empowered to say I’m not ready to talk about it.

6. Build a support team and a medical team.

Some people are eager to offer unsolicited advice and talk about their experiences with cancer. I appreciate their good intentions, but I did not want to make decisions based on anecdotal information. A good friend suggested, “Build your support team and build your medical team. Use your support team for support and your medical team for your treatment decisions. It is OK to keep them separate if you want to.”

7. A positive outlook makes a difference for me.

I used to hate the saying:  Life is 10 percent how you make it and 90 percent how you take it. It made me feel like all my hard work only added up to a 10 percent difference. Now I realize that even if I can’t control a situation, I can control my outlook, and a positive outlook makes the biggest difference of all for me. I have made a conscious choice to focus on the positive. I have erased negative texts instead of sending them. I have chosen not to complain when things go wrong. The biopsy I had one month into the clinical trial had to be repeated the following week due to a processing error. Instead of focusing on the negative, I asked if they would take some extra time with the ultrasound to measure the size of my tumor. They agreed, and I had the relief of finding out it was already shrinking. We waited two hours for an appointment last week and spent the time Googling cartoons about long waits in doctor’s offices! Picture this: The patient is sitting on the exam table and his right leg is sticking straight up in the air.  The doctor stands beside him with stars floating around his head like he has just been kicked.  The nurse says, “Looks like appropriate reflexes for someone who’s waited two hours!” We were chuckling when the doctor walked into the room! When I am feeling especially discouraged, I always look for a way to reframe the situation in a positive light.

8. Cancer isn’t a competition.

I have been blessed to connect with two friends who are going through breast cancer treatment ahead of me. When we first met and shared our stories, I tried rank ordering who had the “best” and “worst” diagnosis and treatment plan. That is something I conjured up on my own, and it was not helpful at all. I still have three more months of taking pills to cut off the estrogen supply before I know whether I will have a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and I will only learn if I need chemotherapy after the surgical pathology report is back. This could end up really good or really bad. That does not negate the stress I’m going through during this waiting period imposed by the treatment plan I chose. I have lost a lot of sleep over the “what-ifs,” but I’ve also made good use of this time to consult with the radiation oncologist, plastic surgeon and mastectomy fitter so I will be prepared to make decisions when the time comes. I have a newfound respect for all women with breast cancer, regardless of the details. 

Everyone has to find the path that is right for them. Writing poetry, e-mailing friends and writing in my prayer journal helped me process some of my emotions.

9. Stay engaged.

Mark found a friend whose wife is also going through cancer treatment. They have started meeting for lunch regularly. The most helpful advice Mark got from his friend was, “Stay engaged.” Mark sat down with me one evening and said he wanted to stay engaged but didn’t know what he wanted to talk about or if he even had anything to say. An hour later, we were still talking.

10. My faith is a source of strength during this process.

My first husband died when I was 37, and I learned I could rely on God in hard times. Even when I was mad at Him and someone else had to stand in the gap for me, I believe God was always there. I had plenty of time to re-evaluate my priorities and started living a more authentic life. Facing my cancer diagnosis almost two decades later, I was feeling pretty good about how I was living my life without regrets. I felt I was reaping the rewards of what I had been through in my 30s. That was – until I had lunch with Nancy! She is in her 90s and her husband was moving to a nursing home because of his poor health. Mark and I took her out for lunch to lift her spirits, and she ended up lifting ours. I told her I knew they were going through a hard transition, and it would be nice to know how long the roller coaster ride would last so she would know how to pace herself. Nancy replied, “Oh, honey, then how would my faith have a chance to grow?” That stopped me in my tracks.

Lunch with Nancy gave me the resolve to stop coasting on past experiences and open myself up to the new lessons cancer has for me to learn. I joke that my life goal is to take up smoking on my 100th birthday and light my first cigarette from the candles on my cake. That leaves me 44 more years to coast or grow. 

You can’t gain speed coasting unless you are going downhill. I choose growth. I choose faith. I choose life.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.


woman smiling at a wedding

Surviving Depression and Getting Breast Cancer

Life is full of dramatic ironies. I had spent the past four months meeting weekly with my therapist, as she tried again and again to help me see the legitimacy of depression as a chronic illness. The kind of illness that can kill you. The kind of illness that entitles you to ask for help from friends and family. “I wish you could see and understand and say out loud,” she said time and again, “you have a chronic illness that can be and has been life-threatening. If you had cancer, diabetes, or congestive heart failure, you would have no qualms about telling people that you are sick and you need their support. The depressive episode that you just experienced almost killed you.”

She was right. I had indeed been close to death when I sat in my living room trying to kill myself. But now I was in recovery, though not yet recovered, not yet well. Just because you survive a heart attack doesn’t mean you are well enough to return to business as usual. I was committed to slowing down, working only part time, and doing the difficult work of introspection to determine what needed to change for me to get mentally well. No easy task, but I was committed to this new “staying alive plan,” as I called it.

I’m a girl who loves an action plan, and so I accepted this new beginning and my goal of “getting better” with zeal. I would name and accept depression as an intermittent presence in my life, but I would not let this illness kill me. I quit a full time job I didn’t like very much, despite its benefits and health insurance. I continued working 20 hours per week at my second job that I actually enjoyed, training youth on issues of reproductive justice. I swallowed my pride and asked my parents for financial help, explaining to them what had been going on with my mental health. When the deposit appeared in my bank account, I cringed with sadness and shame at the thought of my 30th birthday rapidly approaching and me asking my parents, at retirement age, for money. I reminded myself several times a day, this is what I need to do to get better.

They say things get worse before they get better. Four months after my depression almost killed me, one month after I had committed to the “staying alive plan,” I received unexpected bad news in the unlikeliest of settings.

I was in a parking lot on a perfect spring day when I was told I had breast cancer. Minutes earlier, I had been seated at my desk in front of my computer in the office I share with my coworker. I heard the phone ring, saw the phone number of the incoming call and knew it was the doctor’s office. My first emotion was relief. Good news would come over the phone, I had assumed, and bad news would come in person, at my scheduled follow-up appointment on Monday. This was Tuesday, and they were calling me. It had to be good news. They wouldn’t give bad news over the phone. (Spoiler alert: they totally can and will give you bad news over the phone.)

“Just one second,” I said, as I rose from my desk, and paced quickly to the end of the hall, pushing down the bar on the glass door that led outside. I wrapped my one free arm around my ribcage while holding the phone to my ear with the other, not because I was chilly — it was warm with a clear blue sky — but almost instinctively to brace myself for the news I didn’t know was coming. “OK, I’m here.” The kind, pleasant, well-measured voice of the surgeon on the other end of the call resumed. “We have the results back from your pathology, and unfortunately it is bad news. We found a cancer.”

Each of her words hit me like a punch in the gut. Unfortunately. Bad news. Cancer. I was silent, slowly pacing up the inclined walkway away from the building. My eyebrows knit together, my eyes squinting against the brightness, as my brain tried to process what I was hearing. She must have said the wrong thing, I thought. It’s supposed to be good news, she’s supposed to tell me this is over. Things are supposed to be getting better.

Finally I realized she was not going to say anything else until she heard a response from me. “OK…” I managed to produce a word from my throat. Surely now she’ll realize she made a mistake and correct herself. But she didn’t. She went on to describe the findings of the pathology report in her characteristically slow, deliberate voice that I would come to find comforting, as I would come to think of her as “my surgeon.” From that point on in the call, I heard and digested only fragmented words and phrases. Carcinoma. Invasive. Margins. Genetic testing. Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. All words that have become part of my lexicon and daily conversations with doctors, friends, and family. But that day, the effort to digest two simple words, “breast cancer,” took my breath away.

I finished the phone call with my surgeon, and through the fog of it all, I heard her say I would be scheduled for three different doctors appointments at the Cancer Center on Thursday. At some point, I had found my way to my car and unlocked the door to slip inside the driver’s seat. I leaned my elbows against the steering wheel for a moment with my head in my hands, then said, “OK. Thank you,” and hung up. I struggled to breathe. It was still a beautiful spring day, and the breeze rustled the leaves of the tree overhead.

That day was an uninvited new beginning. The day I was diagnosed with cancer and my 30th birthday a month and a half later would stand in my memory as bookends to a surreal and nightmarish chapter of my life.

After that phone call, I left work in a rapid fury, rushing back inside the office building to gather my things. I didn’t know where or what I was rushing to, but I knew I could not stay there. As I merged onto the freeway, I thought, what are you supposed to do the day you find out you have cancer? I had never heard this question asked, and I didn’t have an answer. I made an attempt to survey my body, mind and heart. What do you want or need right now? To call my mom. To be with friends. Alcohol. Cigarettes. To break things. My mom had been staying with me to help me as I recovered from the surgical biopsy that led to my diagnosis. I called her from the car; she was out walking, enjoying the weather. “They said they found cancer,” I told her. She stayed calm. I stayed calm. It was strange that we were both able to maintain a calm exterior in the face of such terror.

As I established earlier: I’m a girl who loves an action plan, and so I set to work. I dialed my friends as I drove, assigning tasks to various individuals. I was piecing together a plan, an “I found out I have cancer” ritual. We’d meet at A. & K.’s house. A. would buy beer and champagne. C. would pick me up and drive me home in case I drank too much. I would bring snacks. J. would bring my cigarettes, which she typically rationed to me at her own discretion, in an effort to modulate my smoking habit.

It’s not surprising that my gut reaction to my diagnosis was to create a ritual. I find them helpful, especially in times of transition. They guide us along the process of change and afford us some symbolism to understand the chapter that is closing and the one that is opening.

On the night of my diagnosis, I sat in the backyard with my four dear friends. We drank. I rushed everyone to drink their beers quickly, so that we could amass enough glass bottles for the main event. We smoked, and no one gave me shit for smoking cigarettes the day I was diagnosed with cancer. We laughed darkly about the absurdity of it all, of me surviving severe depression only to be diagnosed with cancer. When the laughter ran out, we stared silently at one another with a sad helplessness in our eyes until it was twilight and we couldn’t see each others’ faces. Then, we lined up in front of the house, several feet from the brick foundation that lined the crawl space. And we threw the beer bottles with all our might at the crease between the house and the concrete driveway. Each shatter was musical but short lived. They punctuated the words from the surgeon’s phone call, and the silent dialogue that had run through my head. Unfortunately. *shatter* Bad news. *shatter* Cancer. *shatter* Fuck. *shatter* We took turns, with me doing the honors of breaking the three extra bottles. It was over too quickly.

I ushered everyone inside for the final piece of the absurd, tragic cancer ritual. A. began pouring champagne into blue-patterned teacups. C. read a poem about welcoming pain and sadness when they come to reside with you unannounced. I said to my friends, “We’re going to toast the beginning of this shitty season, and we’re going to toast again when it’s over.”

Cheers. And, fuck you, cancer.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Share a story about one moment or conversation related to a cancer diagnosis or experience that made an impact on you. Find out how to email us a story submission here.

When I Took a Moment to Embrace My New Normal and Not Fear Cancer

Cancer is time-specific. A lot of time is spent waiting. Waiting for results, waiting for tests, waiting until you can have treatment, waiting until you have recovered from one treatment to have the next treatment, waiting to heal from surgery, waiting for side effects to disappear. The list is endless.

Waiting, as I’ve recently discovered, is daunting. I wonder how many minutes, hours and days are wasted waiting for time to pass. But I’m not waiting on health professionals today, though. Today I’m waiting for me. 

Today I’m waiting to feel like my old normal self. I’m waiting to feel carefree, bogged down only by life’s minor impracticalities. I’m waiting to wake up worrying that I haven’t put the bins out or hoping that it’s my day off and I don’t have to jump up at “silly” o’clock and get ready for school. I’m waiting to see if I will get mildly irritated that my son will ask me what’s for breakfast this morning even though he’s more than capable of making his own.

I’m waiting for the unattainable, and I’m waiting in vain. It’s like waiting for the last train that you know isn’t coming.

I will feel those feelings again about work, bins and breakfast, but never again in their own exclusivity. After my cancer bombshell, I can only feel those feelings alongside “cancer fears.” Cancer fear is the monkey on my shoulder that grows in stature, depending on my inner feelings. Some days it’s a huge gorilla, making me wonder if the ache in my stomach is stomach cancer or if the headache I’ve had all morning is a brain tumor or a rash is skin cancer. Or cancer fear can be just the fear of your cancer metastasizing at a later date or that your cancer has not been fully removed and will come back again.

This cancer fear is there every time I open my eyes. Sometimes it’s just a little monkey allowing me to immerse myself as much as possible into the normality of everyday tasks like the school run, shopping and defrosting the freezer.

Today, this fear is attempting gorilla status, and as I lie on my living room rug wrapped in my son’s arms, I wish and hope we can have many more years of hugs and try hard not to think about my own mortality as I press my cheek against his. I enjoy the feel of his skin against mine and soak up the moment. “The old normal” will never come, so instead I make a deal with myself to enjoy the moment and embrace the new normal.

I read somewhere that happiness is allowing yourself to be perfectly OK with “what is,” rather than wishing for and worrying about “what is not.” “What is” is what’s supposed to be, or it would not be. The rest is just you, arguing with life.

I think about that for a minute while reveling in the warmth of my son’s cheek, waiting for him to stir and gently detach my cheek from his.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

swimming pool

When I Decided to Go Swimming Bald After Chemo

To wear or not wear the bathing cap.

This was my dilemma one late summer afternoon in 2013. I was a recent “graduate” of surgery plus chemo for breast cancer, and I was enjoying a brief hiatus before daily radiation treatments started up in October. My sons, ages 6 and 8 then, were with me in the locker room of our local YMCA in Woburn, Massachusetts, as I debated whether or not to wear a hot pink bathing cap.

It was my children who wanted to swim that day, not me. When they asked me about it that morning, I lied and said I had to work. I was a freelance writer then, but business was slow. The truth was I didn’t want anyone to see me bald.

“Please, Mama,” Jonas begged as he shimmied onto my lap. “Can we swim?”

It had been a tough six months for them, too. “OK,” I said.

My husband watched the kids as I ran to a local sporting goods store for a bathing cap. I hadn’t worn one since I was a kid at Camp Monroe in Orange Country, New York, back in the ‘80s. The choices overwhelmed me. Should I go with simple white? Or the more fun cupcake one? The American flag was too patriotic. After several wasted minutes that I’ll never get back, I grabbed a hot pink cap and called it a day.

“Why not just swim without one?” a friend asked when she called later that morning. I explained I wasn’t comfortable flaunting my baldness. Self-consciousness, specifically about my hair, came to call around age 12, and it’s never left. Back then, it was all about having the perfect feathered bangs like Farrah Fawcett in “Charlie’s Angels.”

I’d had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with my hair for decades — always wishing I could trade my coarse wavy mane for something smooth, shiny and straight. Combine that with my aversion to risk taking (simply stepping into an elevator or a revolving door is angst-ridden enough for me), and you’d never find me skydiving or bungee jumping like my cousins who inherited some crazy daredevil gene I did not.

Out of everything during treatment, chemotherapy scared me the most, but not because I’d lose my hair. I was terrified of feeling sick, of vomiting, of all the unknowns. As for my locks, I scoffed when someone suggested I could keep them by freezing my scalp after each chemo session with what she called a “cold cap.” It sounded unpleasant. And cold.

After the hair was gone, I immediately hid my naked noggin under a fabulous auburn wig a friend bought for me. I also purchased several hats and various coverings, what my mother would have called “schmattas,” the Yiddish word for rags. She never saw my schmattas, however, as she died of ovarian cancer in 2002 at age 69. Like me, she wore a stylish wig much of the time. I never saw her bald.

Unfortunately, when I first tried to slip the pink bathing cap on my head in the Y locker room, it was like trying to stuff a grapefruit into one of my kids’ socks.

“I don’t think I can wear it,” I said to the boys. “It’s too tight.”

“But you have to wear it,” Jonas said.


“Because people will think you’re weird,” he said.

“Yeah, Mom,” my older son chimed in. “You should wear it.”

That’s when I recalled the bald woman I’d made eye contact with in the grocery store that week. I stared at this woman, hoping she would notice me — hoping she would see that we were “one,” she and I, under my schmatta. When our eyes finally met, I smiled. She, however, did not. I’d been judged.

And so it was her disapproving face, I believe, that pushed me over the edge that day at the Y. I would show her — and my kids and my crippling self-conscious self — that I could do this thing. That after all I’d been through already — the blood draws, the biopsies, the surgery, the chemo — I could get in a pool bald and survive.

So instead of packing up and heading for the parking lot, I chucked the bathing cap back in my locker and confidently said, “Let’s go swimming guys!” 

“Really?” Ethan said looking at my head. “Like that?”

I nodded.

“OK,” he said and shrugged.

“OK,” Jonas agreed.

In the pool, my boys played as though nothing was unusual. Strangers looked at me: not all, but some. A little girl floating by on a couple of noodles stared in the obvious way kids do. I smiled and she turned away, then turned back once more just to make sure I was still bald. I saw the curly-haired, young lifeguard who had taught my kids to swim. We made eye contact, and he smiled politely. There were others who looked, but no one pointed, or laughed or said anything.

Swimming bald, I discovered, was no big deal. Rather, it was just one more reminder that scary things in life often don’t turn out as bad as we think they will. Swimming bald made me feel bold. Sure, it was nothing compared to jumping out of an airplane. But like the silky pool water as it lapped against my smooth, naked head, damn, it felt good.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What was one thing you thought immediately after your diagnosis that you completely changed your mind about? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Clockwise from top left: My final chemo day; my first walk after surgery; my final radiation day; my first post-chemo haircut.

What I’ve Realized After Spending Over a Year Under a ‘Cancer Cloud’

In September of 2014 (soon after my 40th birthday), I felt a small lump in my breast. I made the proper calls and arrangements for testing, but I kept convincing myself it was “just a cyst.”

However, after a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, doctors confirmed my worst fears: I had Stage IIB triple-negative breast cancer, and I was devastated. Ironically, on the first day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I met with my oncologist. I was still reeling from the shock as we figured out my game plan and looked ahead to what would be a long year of chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation.

Before I could process any of it, I was on the Cancer Train. And once it starts, it starts fast.

It’s difficult to watch your body betray you and become unrecognizable. It’s equally hard to lose control over it. While in the fog of chemotherapy — and trying to keep whatever I could eat down — being stylish was the last thing on my mind. During my second round, I ran my hand through my hair, and clumps came out. I started crying.

Yes, I knew this would happen. Yes, I knew it would grow back. But, guess what? It. Still. Sucked.

Trying to ignore the fact that my hair was disappearing, I dared not comb it or mess with it too much, in fear of shaking it and having to watch more fall out. Every night, I had my boyfriend sweep the hair from the bathroom, so I would not see it in the morning. I finally realized I couldn’t stop it, so I thought maybe it would be a good opportunity to try that pixie cut I’d always wanted. Unfortunately, my hairdresser informed me in a whisper that she couldn’t cut it that short; she had to leave my hair longer on top to cover the bald patches underneath.

Rocking a combover, I still couldn’t bring myself to have that shaving party everyone recommends to “take control of it.” I had bought a wig in preparation, but I just wasn’t ready yet. Finally, after attending a breast cancer support group in a hat and meeting fellow breast cancer survivors, I felt ready to face the inevitable.

That night, my boyfriend shaved my head (since he keeps his hair neatly shorn, he knows his way around clippers). I closed my eyes and cried as my remaining hair fell around me. When he finished, he kissed my head and said, “Look! We match!”

The next day, I felt free. It was finally done and over with, and I could stop dreading watching my hair fall out. With a background in fashion, I was determined to keep my style sense throughout treatment. Wanting to look more natural, I never wore my wig. Instead, I had fun experimenting with scarves during chemo and received lots of compliments. Cancer took many things from me, but I wouldn’t let it take my style!

Although everyone kept telling me I didn’t “look sick” — believe me, I was! — staying stylish was still important to me, and the extra confidence boost helped me feel better through it all.

Because it benefitted me so much, I wanted to create a resource to assist others who’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis to keep their sense of style during treatment. Survivor Moda (a play on “survivor mode,” using the Spanish word for fashion, moda) was born. While still in radiation treatment, I decided to sew a seatbelt pillow to keep my chest comfortable during the car rides to and from the hospital. (And I have used it every day since.) A fellow breast cancer survivor pal was due to have surgery, so I made one for her as a gift before she was admitted. She was so excited and said, “I didn’t even know I needed this!” I assured her although she may not have considered it before, she would be glad to have it when she left the hospital. After seeing her response and hearing feedback from other breast cancer survivors, I turned my creation into The ParkPuff™: a portable, stylish, chest-comforting seatbelt pillow.

Cancer is a long road. Along the way, I enjoyed each of my completed milestones. Every treatment phase I finished meant one more closer to the end. I’ll never forget my chemo buddies, the beautiful fellow cancer survivors who gave me strength and all of my wonderful treatment teams, with whom I was always sure to thank and celebrate when I was done.

Rachel Park
Clockwise from top left: My final chemo day; my first walk after surgery; my final radiation day; my first post-chemo haircut.

After a long year (and then some) of treatment including 15 rounds of chemotherapy, three surgeries and 32 radiation treatments, I’m thankful to officially be declared cancer-free!

But now what?

Getting rid of cancer had been my “job” for the past year, and now, it was finally over. What’s tough now is everyone expects me to “get back to normal.” What does that even mean?

What will life look like, now that it won’t be filled with revolving doctors’ visits, pokes, prods and scans? What happens now that I’m not being constantly watched? Who am I, now that cancer is gone? How do I know it won’t return? How do I “get busy living” while under the constant concern of recurrence?

When I was diagnosed, a family member connected me with a breast cancer survivor. At the end of our phone call, she talked about us having a “gift” now. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I do. The “gift” is a profound awareness of time, how finite it is, who I want to spend it with, and more importantly, who I don’t want to spend it with.

Everything is more meaningful. After spending over a year under a “cancer cloud,” I’ve realized “no” isn’t a bad word. Life is too short to do things you don’t want to. I live more authentically now. I laugh and love more deeply. I surround myself with people who lift me up, not weigh me down. Unlike before, instead of worrying about what I don’t have, I’m grateful for what I do.

I’m alive and cancer-free… what’s not to celebrate?

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten or a mantra that spoke to you following your diagnosis?  Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Happy young cancer survivor enjoying sunlight

The Issues We Need to Discuss as Young Women With Breast Cancer

A cancer diagnosis is obviously devastating at any age. Forget chemo-induced puking and hair loss, the issues facing younger women going through cancer treatment run much deeper, but are often ignored and belittled by healthcare professionals. However, with 10 percent of breast cancer patients being diagnosed under the age of 45, and approximately 850 a year under 35 in the UK alone, these issues need to be discussed openly:

1. Mortality rates. A cancer diagnosis is scary enough, but to find out that you’re more likely to die if you are diagnosed under 35? Well, that sucks! We have more life to live, yet are more likely to die from it. This is due to the cancer normally being more aggressive when it’s diagnosed at a later stage. It’s picked up when symptomatic, rather than at an early stage on a mammogram. Plus prognoses are often spoken about in one, five, or 10 years…but that only takes me to 43. I want to live much longer than that.

2. Fertility issues. Chemotherapy can cause infertility, and some women will be on drugs for the following 10 years, so even if they are not left infertile, the 10-year delay can push them past the “child-bearing age.” This issue is often the most heart-breaking side effect for younger women – having to mourn their infertility while their healthy friends are happily procreating around them. There is the possibility of freezing embryos and eggs, but only if there is time and funding is available, or they have the cash to fund it themselves. Shockingly, many young women don’t have their options discussed before starting treatment. That needs to change.

3. Having a young family. If infertility isn’t an issue, they may already have young children or babies. Many are diagnosed while pregnant or breastfeeding. They have to “carry on as normal” throughout their treatment, juggling the 101 things moms have to do, alongside constant hospital appointments, surgery, treatment and dealing with all of the “yucky” side effects. Alongside this, they have the heartbreak of explaining what is happening to their children and dealing with their children’s reactions and fears, while facing the very real possibility they might not be around to see them grow up.

4. Career. Many young women are diagnosed in the throes of their career. The constant hospital visits for surgery, scans, blood tests and treatments and the resulting side effects and recovery times make it almost impossible to continue a 9-5 job, let alone put in the additional hours. There are also other lingering side effects that continue long after treatment has finished, such as extreme fatigue and “chemo-brain” (cognitive impairment as a result of chemo that can make your head feel really foggy and affect your memory and ability to concentrate which is extremely frustrating) that can make it almost impossible to perform like before. I know of far too many young women who have missed out on promotions or been demoted following their cancer diagnosis. With the pressure on young women to prove themselves, this creates a huge hurdle and can lead to financial issues.

5. Early menopause.
Boom! Straight into hot flashes (volcanic lava hot), insomnia, night sweats, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain and dryness (whispers) *down there.* Rather than being eased into menopause over many, many years, our hormones are prematurely turned off and the result can be extreme. And since the plan is to lower estrogen as much as possible, it is difficult to take hormone replacement therapies (HRT) or natural remedies, and we are often left to just deal with it.

6. Body issues. I know we all have body issues regardless of our age, but even I have to admit that mine are fewer in my 30s than in my 20s and teens. My body is unrecognizable since my treatment and chemo. The younger you are, the more you don’t want to be seen as “different” and many are single and have yet to meet their life partner. To be left “one-boobed,” overweight and scarred can severely knock the confidence in many young women.

7. Isolation. No matter how amazing your friends are, they are less likely to understand, as we just haven’t had other friends go through cancer at our age. They also have their own busy lives to get on with. In hospital for my treatments and surgeries, I was often the only one under 50 — cue lots of tilting heads and pitying looks.

However, the good news is there are some brilliant resources out there for young women – and they proved invaluable for me. For breast cancer, Breast Cancer Care runs Younger Women Together weekends and there’s a brilliant secret Facebook group called Younger Breast Cancer Network (set up by my friend Vickie who was also diagnosed in her 30’s) with over 2,500 members all under the age of 45 in the UK. It provides support from diagnosis to beyond treatment, as well as those whose cancer has spread. It also offers the opportunity to meet others of a similar age and at a similar treatment stage local to you. Vickie also works tirelessly to make things better for us young folk with charities and hospital trusts. For those facing other cancers, Shine Cancer Support is for those in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and has regular local meet-ups and workshops. Just connecting with others your age going through the same thing is therapeutic and makes you feel less alone.

For those of us lucky enough to still be here, we try our best to go on and fulfill enriching, happy lives with many of us doing things that act as good examples to those in the early stages of diagnosis. Many women I’ve met through my cancer journey continue to fundraise, speak publicly, set-up businesses, campaign for better care or drug availability and and have created charities and support networks. They are all determined to make something good from something awful.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age. We need to make sure the relevant help and support is offered to each and every person.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.