Breast Cancer Awareness Month through the Lens of a First-Year Survivor

Breast-cancer-awareness-month

Just in case you missed all the pink, it’s October–Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It takes on a different meaning for me this year than in years past. This year, I view the health observance through the lens of someone who has recently lived through hearing “It’s breast cancer” and all of the fear, pain, uncertainty, discomfort, exhaustion, and blessings (yes, blessings) that come with diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

Up to now, I have been reluctant to say I am a cancer survivor. My experience was so much milder than many who have had breast cancer that I felt I hadn’t “earned” the title. I was also reluctant to bear that title because I did not want cancer to be part of my identity. But, I have realized that my experience with cancer IS part of who I am–as much as any life experience is, good or bad. And I can choose how to frame that experience–as good or bad.

So, I am choosing to use this month to speak out as someone who’s “been there”–to advocate for early detection and to reflect on lessons learned through my breast cancer journey.

First, the advocacy piece…  Women, if you’re over 40 and haven’t had a mammogram in the past year, talk to your doctor. Get an appointment and get screened. Yes, it’s unpleasant. Who wants to hug a cold, hard machine while having their breasts smashed into pancakes? But do it.

If your doctor says you don’t need a mammogram this year because you had one last year, consider pushing back. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which issues public health recommendations, has recently said that every couple of years is enough for women starting at age 50, though they add that when to start having mammograms and how often to have them should be an individual decision for each patient. You have a right to question your doctor if he or she says you don’t need it. The American College of Gynecologists still says every year starting at age 40.

A routine yearly mammogram found my cancer at age 44–and found it very early, when I had the best prognosis and easiest treatment possible. Had I waited another year, it could have been a much different story.

And the lessons learned through this experience? There are several, which can probably apply to probably most major life hurdles:

  • When recovering from surgery, nothing tastes as good as food your friends have prepared. It’s tempting to push away help because it makes you feel needy. But we all have times of need. Letting friends and family meet your needs not only helps you to cope with whatever trial you’re facing, but also helps to build connection and community.
  • Prayer is a powerful thing. At many times during testing, diagnosis, surgery, and radiation, I put out a call to friends to pray for me–for good results, for peace, for comfort. And I did my own fair share of praying myself. It had a very real effect in calming my nerves, changing my attitude, and bringing me a peace in the midst of fear or pain.
  • Worrying about tomorrow makes it harder to get through today. It was hard not to worry about upcoming procedures or treatments, to wonder about the outcome of surgery, to guess for how many weeks I’d feel tired, sore, and foggy from radiation treatments. But no one could predict the future; I just had to wait and see. Whether the day brought lots to think about and plan for, or was pretty much “normal,” it was helpful to try to live into each day and not jump mentally to the next. I didn’t always succeed at that–but it was so much better when I did.
  • No one will die if your house isn’t clean. For awhile I tried to keep up with everything I did before being diagnosed with cancer. But over time, I realized that, for a season, I had to slow down. You only have so much physical and mental energy. The house didn’t get tidied and cleaned as often. I didn’t do as many volunteer activities. And I even took a short leave of absence from work. What truly needed to get done, got done–sometimes by me, sometimes by other people. I think pride gets in the way, and we convince ourselves that if we don’t do all the stuff we’ve been doing, somehow life will fall apart. It doesn’t.
  • That which doesn’t kill you makes you…. different. I know, it’s supposed to be “…makes you stronger.” Not sure I agree with that saying in all cases. But any adversity–serious illness, divorce, job loss, death of a spouse, whatever it is–makes you see life a little differently. It gives you knowledge and experience you didn’t have before, that maybe you can share with others. (That’s already happened twice with women I know who have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.) It helps you appreciate even more those friends and family members who rally around you in your time of need. And a trying time can spur you to make changes in your life that might help you avoid a repeat of the trying time–whether that’s changing bad habits, starting healthy new habits, re-examining decisions, or re-evaluating relationships. It can be an opportunity for a life “reboot.”

I won’t go so far as to say I’m glad I had breast cancer. But, as one friend has encouraged, I will say I am proud to have gone through it and come out the other side. And I’m prepared to pass along any knowledge I’ve gained and share hope–most especially hope–with anyone who finds herself walking the same road.

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