I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2015. It started when I just went for a regular check-up with my doctor, and she sent me for further testing, a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. When I went for the ultrasound, the radiologist was acting a little weird, like not looking at me during testing, not making eye contact and immediately after the test, the doctor came in and said that there was an area of concern in my breasts and the lymph nodes under my arm. I knew that there was some serious concern after the ultrasound. After the ultrasound, the doctor recommended a biopsy. A week later, I went for the biopsy, where the doctor said that what she was seeing was not normal breast tissue and that the results for the biopsy would come in about 1 to 3 days, however the very next day, a nurse called me up and said that I had breast cancer.
After the diagnosis, I started making appointments, seeing an oncologist, seeing surgeons and going for further testing to make sure that I didn’t have any other cancer in my body. Three weeks later, I proceeded for a double mastectomy surgery. I chose delayed reconstruction, but all I wanted to do was focus on removing breast tissue. After healing, I underwent five months of chemotherapy. Following chemotherapy, I went through 6 weeks of radiation. The radiation was very challenging physically and emotionally. In June of 2016, the reconstruction process began. I wasn’t fully aware of what exactly was happening to me and what I underwent until after the initial procedure. And when I started rebuilding my body physically, that was when I felt stuck emotionally. In addition to that, I was terrified of the recurrence of cancer because the recurrence rate is high for breast cancer. The side effects of chemotherapy for me were nerve damage in my feet. I found out that the best treatment for this was acupuncture.
CHANGES MADE DURING TREATMENT
Most of my changes came after my treatment. I remember my nurse telling me that I should get up and walk more, but I didn’t. But later, after the initial treatment, I tried to get out more and walk. However, some days were terrible. My kids were 15 when I was diagnosed with cancer, and while I was undergoing cancer treatment, I also cared for my children with special needs. Some days were awful, like getting up, getting dressed, and eating was a huge accomplishment. It was afterwards that I began taking care of myself. One of the ways I did so was by incorporating stress management. I also completely changed the way I eat; I started eating more plant-based. That made me feel better, and I also included exercising; I used to exercise; however, I began to pay more attention to it. Cancer also changes relationships. I started to value deep relationships; I prefer not to have casual relations, I treasure relationships that add value to my life.
FEAR OF RECURRENCE
Every patient that has had cancer once fears the recurrence of cancer. There are triggers for such a fear. Breast cancer awareness month can trigger doctor’s appointments, a scan, and patients with breast cancer. These triggers cause anxiety, especially during breast cancer months. Breast cancer patients see a lot of pink everywhere, and there is a lot of media coverage. The key to this is to manage this fear. For me, I have a fear of recurrence, and at the same time, I can move forward and live joyously. The clue is to realize that fear will always be there, but we have to try and manage it the best we can. The thing to understand here is that fear is not a fact; it is just an emotion, and we don’t have cancer at the moment and say to ourselves that we can conquer it and live our life and enjoy it.
TURNING POINT IN LIFE
I read something online written by another cancer patient. It felt like a rope was being tossed to me. She said, “I don’t want to look back decades from now and realize that I had lived my entire life in fear”. This was a wake-up call for me. I recognized that I have to live life now, move forward, and enjoy life. At this point, I started doing things for my health. What helped me cope with the ongoing medications and the various side effects was incorporating joy in my life.
MY SUPPORT SYSTEM
I didn’t have a vast support system. But what I resonated with was the community message boards. Yet my family members helped with rides during surgeries and helped physically when they could. I also had great co-workers who provided meals. People need to understand that one person cannot be your complete support system. For example, one person assists you with meals and things like that, and another helps you emotionally. Not everybody can be everything to you in a supportive manner. I found a support system one more way was my friendship with Rachel, who I met online. When I met her, she had stage 4 breast cancer. This friendship was very special to me. At first, it was hard for me to bond with her because she showed me what it would be like if my cancer came back, but we became excellent friends moving forward. We laughed and cried in the same conversation. For Rachel, it was beneficial to have a person outside the family dynamic who understood the disease, and that’s what I try to be for other cancer patients.
WHAT CANCER AWARENESS MONTHS MEAN TO ME
Firstly, it is essential to spread awareness about self-examinations and test appropriately.
Secondly, it is essential to communicate that a cancer patient might be having a difficult time emotionally and physically even years out of their diagnosis.
Third, I would like to honor the cancer patients struggling with cancer and the people who passed away due to the disease and not just the people who have survived. I also think that we should promote respect and honor around cancer struggles and not just have these big celebrations.
MY MESSAGE TO CAREGIVERS
Ride the emotional rollercoaster with your cancer patients; it is a rollercoaster with immense highs and big lows, so make sure to stick by them and not walk away because it is a long and challenging road.
MY MESSAGE TO THE CANCER PATIENTS
Firstly, you can have cancer and move forward and enjoy your life.
Secondly, share your feelings with your family and friends. When you feel low, reach out to them and know that it is hard and whatever you are feeling is okay, and there is love and support around you.