As a nonfiction writer, research is a big part of my life. When I heard the words, “You have triple-negative breast cancer” in 2011 at age 57, I donned my research hat and went to work. I assembled a medical dream team, based on personal contacts and online reviews. Surgical options, reconstructive avenues and chemotherapy drugs were all plugged into a spreadsheet.
However, it never occurred to me that life after cancer would be different, that survivorship was something to be researched as well. When a cascade of post-treatment issues rained down, I asked my oncologist what was happening. “We were busy saving your life,” she snapped. “Discussing survivorship wasn’t necessary.” And so my self-guided education in survivorship began.
To assuage the night sweats, joint pain, chronic fatigue and insomnia, a healthy diet and exercise topped everyone’s list of recommendations. That was easy for me as they were already a part of my lifestyle. (My oncologist had told me at the outset of treatment that my overall good health gave me a great advantage.) I had been an A student in sleeping, but night sweats and insomnia were now cramping my style. In a total reversal of character, I gave in to naps when my body asked for them.
The “between the ears” stuff took a little more work. My cancer had come at the worst time. (Does it ever come at a good time?) I was a newlywed. My military son was deploying to Afghanistan. The questions rattling around in my head all began with why: Why me? Why now?
It seemed the most logical people to consult were those who had walked the same road: sister survivors. That first step truly changed my life. I could write thousands of words on the topic. Instead, I give you my most valuable lessons learned.
Find a Cancer Veteran
This is where my bona fide survivorship education began. While every survivor has unique challenges, there are many commonalities as well. As in any relationship, I looked for new friends with similarities to me: women of my age, temperament and lifestyle. One new friend led to another and, for the most part, these survivor veterans were great guides for this rookie. I also learned that I didn’t have to keep talking to new friends whose approach to survivorship did not resonate with me. The biggest eye opener was the true definition of survivorship: It begins at diagnosis; that’s when we begin surviving our disease.
I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of gal, but cancer taught me to appreciate more every day. I started by looking up at the sky. The blues, grays, purples and oranges, depending on clouds and time, were as vivid as the colors in a crayon box. Had it always looked like that? The more I surveyed my surroundings, the more I inhaled the beauty of every person and thing. Nearly 10 years after my diagnosis, I still do a daily gratitude roundup.
Treasure in the Wreckage
You’ve walked on a beach, right? If you’re studying what’s washed up, it’s easy to lose track of how far you’ve gone until you look back at your footprints. So it is with survivorship. The treatment part of the cancer journey—the wreckage that everyone focuses on—is really just a blip on our timeline. The long walk, the one with the most footprints, is survivorship. And if we’re open to considering it, treasures can be found in our wreckage.
Mine are many, including meeting amazing survivors, compassionate oncology professionals (some of whom were also survivors) and others I would never have known if not for cancer. I started an organization, A 2nd Act, focused on the premise that helping is healing. Our storytelling fundraisers showcase inspirational women who have helped others and healed themselves. Among other programs, those funds allow us to give microgrants for women to launch or grow their own second acts.
Would I rather not have lost a breast, my hair and a year of my life? You bet. Do I see my life as richer—and myself as a more interesting and well-rounded human—because of my cancer? You bet. I can’t undo my diagnosis. But I am determined to make the best of all the footprints in the sand since cancer washed up on my beach.
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