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

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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?

Originally published: August 8, 2016
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