As with many others the challenge I faced was cancer and I doubt my story is unique to anyone but me. In 2017, during the ripe old age of 45, I went to get a baseline mammogram. Having never been sick in my life (no surgeries, no kids, no hospital stays, no illnesses more severe than a winter cold), I lacked a family doctor and only went to get the baseline because my aunt was having a mastectomy (at the sprite age of 72). So on a nice October day, I went to the imaging center for my first (and last) mammogram. A week later my life was turned upside down. The diagnosis of cancer was the biggest kick in the gut I could have imagined. The physician’s assistant in the small town I live in delivered the news, admitted that she didn’t know much, and referred me to an oncology surgeon in a larger town. Over the next 7 days I did what any red blooded American would do and I Dr. Googled the shit out of breast cancer. Who knew there were different types? Surely not me! By the time my oncology appointment rolled around I was actually feeling pretty good and had even managed through the power of the internet to classify the stage and grade (cue smugness) of my cancer. So when I walked into the oncologist’s office and was asked if I knew I had cancer (duh, why do you think I’m here), and then was asked if I knew what kind of cancer, I was still feeling smug and wondering who this gal was as I confidently stated “breast cancer.” She then proceeded to inform me that I had triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma (I quickly determined that’s what her question was getting at, not the general diagnosis). Having not Dr. Googled that form of breast cancer I thought things were starting to look up, because negative, and triple that, had to be good, right? Ya, no. When she informed me that it was the most aggressive form of breast cancer, and the only treatment available was surgery, chemotherapy, and possibly radiation I fell into a stunned silence. To me, chemotherapy made it real and meant the big C, not the little c (and don’t think that I am lessening anyone’s cancer diagnosis, as all are bad). Leaving the doctor’s office that day I got in my car and started to cry. My boss and co-worker (who double as my closest friends here in town) group texted me to see if I got to keep the tata’s and I informed them I may, but not my hair (I ended up losing both). I had to pull over several times on my drive home due to the onslaught of more crying fits.
How do you get through such a diagnosis? I think for everyone it’s different, and it’s what works for you. Trying to come up with a cookbook response on how to cope with challenges will likely only piss folks off when those steps don’t work, and prevent others from trying what will work. But I can tell you what worked for me: off-colored humor, alcohol (not too much, I don’t want to exchange cancer for alcoholism and liver failure), and openness about my journey and feelings. The alcohol part was actually just an excuse to be social, surrounding myself with friends in a fun and relaxed setting so we could participate in part one of the previous sentence, off-colored humor, which for this extrovert with a love of laughter was a necessity. Living in remote Idaho, I knew that I would quickly tire of telling family and friends what was going on, and possibly end up with cauliflower ear from being on my cell phone constantly, so with the help of my tech savvy brother I developed a blog. This was part three of what worked for me, being open about my journey and feelings. The blog helped serve two purposes, it helped me tell a lot of people what was going on and it allowed me a chance to heal through talking (or in this case writing). I never realized how many people were touched by cancer or adversity, and I surely never realized how a smartass blog could help so many people deal with not only my challenge, but their own. Through all of it I kept my humor but still allowed myself to cry and get angry. My husband was my greatest support, allowing me to process but not allowing me to throw too big of a pity party. I stopped going to Dr. Google and started relying on my new team of highly trained specialists. I listened to folks and I didn’t dismiss those who wanted to tell me what worked for them (even when I didn’t agree with it), as I recognized that sometimes the telling of it is the strongest medicine we can take.
If cancer teaches anyone anything, it’s how many people are there to support you – even if it’s just knowing they are upset to hear you are sick. The outpouring of support from family is expected, but from friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, and the community I now call home, was overwhelming. I learned that I wasn’t invincible, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to show weakness, it’s okay to ask for help. It’s also okay to laugh, to not change your faith or opinions because others around you find their support through other means, to take a timeout and focus on you. The impacts are still rippling through my life, and likely will for the remainder of it. I realized that family, friends, and living life as you want, are greater priorities then work or appearances. I realized it’s not worth sweating over the small stuff, and to a great extent the big stuff, as somethings are outside of your control. I learned to recognize what I could control, which in the simplest of forms boiled down to my attitude and how I was going to let that affect my day. Everyone thinks they will walk away from a large life challenge a completely changed person, but I don’t think we change at all, I think we embrace who we truly are and let that shine brighter. Having gone through these past 16 months I am a better me, able to recognize my strengths and how to use that to support others that are finding themselves facing adversity. I enjoy giving opinions (never advice) to those that ask, and to just listen to those that need to talk. I realize that we need to embrace what makes us happy and let go of the toxicity in our lives. Through this all, being me in the rawest of terms, has helped myself and those I come into contact with make it down this path of life with humor, happiness and acceptance.