On The Other Side
You have cancer.” These are scary, life-changing words. After the utter shock comes a fight for life — that precious gift we all sometimes take for granted. For me, it felt like I was held captive in a room from which I was desperate to escape. All I wanted to do was walk through the door toward the promise of a longer life and all the glorious things that come with it.
Fixated on making it through that doorway, I powered through more tests, surgery, and radiation therapy like an automaton. Fighting the good fight, I remained upbeat and reassured friends and family everything would be fine. When I crossed the threshold of that doorway, I thanked God and felt elated and confident about the future.
What I hadn’t anticipated was what was on the other side of the door. Life, sure, but not the same life I knew before. Someone told me, “Once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.” Frankly, I thought this sounded a little dramatic. Now, being on the other side of breast cancer, I get it. An overused term for this is the “new normal,” which is both wonderful and challenging. The wonderful part, obviously, is that I’m alive. I celebrate this deeply and cherish every moment spent with friends and family, doing the things I love, and marveling at this incredible planet we live on teaming with life.
So, what are the challenging aspects of survivorship? It’s different for everyone. For me, it’s a twofold issue with one amazing surprise thrown in. First, it’s natural to worry about cancer recurrence. Are there cancer cells running loose in my body that can multiply and create another tumor? What are the odds? But I refuse to spend my precious time worrying and wondering, “What if?” Being mindful, living in the moment, and focusing on positivity helps me avoid dark thoughts.
The second is handling treatment side effects. For example, depending on your treatment, you can have ongoing effects from chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and painful lymphedema due to lymph node removal. If diagnosed with hormone-positive breast cancer as I was, you will be taking hormone-suppressing medication for years. While some women have few if any related side effects from these drugs, others suffer from life-altering side effects. They can be so severe that 25 to 40 percent of women stop hormone suppression therapy, willing to trade off the lower probability of cancer recurrence for improved quality of life. Personally, it’s a risk I’m not willing to take at this point, but I understand why women are driven to make this difficult decision.
The surprise gift is the “pink sisterhood.” When you’re on the outside, it’s a group you never want to join. Once on the inside, it’s pretty marvelous. There are pink sisters all around who understand, provide support and empathy, and sometimes simply lend an ear when you need to vent. I meet these amazing, fearless women all the time, often when I least expect it. We share a common bond that transcends any differences we may have. With this comes an overwhelming desire to share and rejoice in our strength to fight and forge ahead with a collective passion ignited in us all.
A multidisciplinary approach to treating breast cancer
“The challenges of treating breast cancer not only include the disease itself but also the mental health of the patient. A diagnosis of breast cancer can trigger many emotions, from the initial denial, to anger at the thought of becoming defeminized, to anxiety as to what may happen. Realizing that it is just as important to treat the patient as it is to treat the disease, modern breast cancer care has taken on a multidisciplinary approach. The traditional team of breast surgeons, radiologists, and oncologists is now supplemented by nutritionists, genetics counselors, and psychologists, all working together to create an individualized treatment and care plan. Nurse navigators work closely with the patient to support and guide them through this plan, which begins with early diagnosis, followed by treatment, and continuing into survivorship. The goal of our team is to ensure the best possible outcome for our patients by working to make sure that the individual is cured in every possible way.”
- Arianne M. Gallaty, M.D. Fellowship Trained Breast Surgeon