Sunday, June 27, 2010

When You Look In The Mirror

What do you see when you look in the mirror? And, how do you want others to see you?

I know how very difficult it is when you are diagnosed, undergoing surgery and treatment, to see the person in your mirror as anything else but a "cancer patient".

Your entire waking existence revolves around office visits, x-rays, scans, lab testing, blood drawing, taking meds, and trying to cope mentally, emotionally, and physically with your new unwanted identity. Cancer has erased the person whom you used to be prior to your diagnosis; you will never be the same.

Most of us are forced to lose part of our body to cancer; but, you don't have to relinquish your identity to it as well. You may even decide to see this as a kind of "rebirth" of the rest of your life. Now, as someone facing your own mortality, what is truly important is very clear; and the person whom you see in the mirror is indeed still you, after everything which you have experienced.

As more and more people living with cancer (over 12 million, at last count) finish treatment and enter their survivorship stage, they will be redefining their own lives. As survivors, we also have a real opportunity to empower and help others; both our fellow cancer patients, and those who might someday also face the disease. This is the reason why I am writing here about my experiences, and sharing them with you. I'm almost 3 years from diagnosis, and there are days when I don't even think about cancer.

It's unfortunate that cancer patients are continually bombarded with the "warrior" and "fighter" personas which are automatically bestowed on us. I believe that the very best way to diminish cancer's power over us is to be true to ourselves, and to define our own lives. Remember, you are not defined by your disease; or by what image society attributes to someone in our situation.

There are many times, even now, when I don't particularly feel like a "warrior" as I deal with my daily symptoms. I don't feel particularly strong or empowered when I'm overcome, literally, by the severe hot flashes caused by my anti-estrogen meds. This happens at least a dozen times a day, and during the night: besides any normal activity, it can be set off by things like standing too close to the toaster, drying my hair, ironing clothes...but I have chosen to laugh it off, and say to myself, "Only 2 and a half more years of taking this drug - I'm almost halfway through!" And, I was the person who was always cold...!

When people describe me, I think that they would most likely say, "She's an upbeat, funny, short woman with blonde hair, who always has a smile for everyone. She loves reading, sci-fi, architecture, history, gardening, pugs; she loves Hawai'i, and plans to move to Maui in retirement. She also happens to be a person who had breast cancer." Cancer is far from the first thing people associate with me, and that's exactly the way I want to be seen, because that's how I see myself.

I have vowed that even though cancer could take my life, I will never allow it to claim my smile, or change the essence of my personality: then, it will have "won" in another way. That, to me, would be even more tragic than dying.

When you feel overwhelmed by fear and worry, think about this: no one knows how much time they have left in this world. And, have you ever considered that you may die from something other than your cancer?

Put your life in perspective, and focus on your present and your future. Be as "you" as you can be; this is the best advice that I could possibly give to the person you see in the mirror.

Friday, June 18, 2010

32 Years!!

On June 17, 1978, two very young people in love got married outside in a wooded setting, by a little pond with ducks, on the grounds of a historic New England restaurant. We had been engaged for four years, the entire time I was attending college. Our wedding day was a little over a year after I graduated from college and my groom graduated from art school.

As we stood there and said our vows, to remain together "...for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do we part", our entire history together was yet to be made. There is something brave and touching about seeing any two people get married: so much love and hope for the future is present on that special day.

Yesterday marked our 32nd wedding anniversary; we have walked through all of life's experiences together, no matter what. We have seen beloved parents and family become ill and then be taken from us; we moved from our hometown, left everything and everyone we knew, and started a new life together 20 years ago in "the Big City". We have traveled halfway around the world together, knowing that we truly are at home wherever we can simply be in each other's presence.

We have had our share of problems, as all couples do; but our commitment to each other and to our marriage has been a constant force in our lives. Most of all, we have gone through my cancer experience as a team every step of the way, and it has brought us even closer together. I will never forget the look in my husband's eyes as I was being prepared for my cancer surgery; no words were needed to let me know how much I mean to him, and how much he wanted to have me in his life for many years to come.

I cannot believe that we have been fortunate enough to be best friends who have been married to each other for 32 years. The day after our anniversary, I said to my husband, "Today is the first day of the next 32 years of our marriage!" We both would be very happy to walk through life, holding hands, for as long as Fate gives to us.

Every single day that I have him in my life is a gift. He is the one person I can trust, the person who can make everything all right, whose love is truly unconditional. He loves and accepts me exactly as I am; and I feel the same way about him. We have found a "home" in each other.

My dream is to continue growing old with him: that is what life and love means to me.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Another National Cancer Survivors Day

Tomorrow, June 6th, is National Cancer Survivors Day: this is traditionally observed on the first Sunday in June.

It is a day for cancer survivors, their loved ones, and their caregivers to all celebrate life. Today, there are 11 million cancer survivors in the US, and I am very grateful to be one of them. I owe my life to my wonderful surgeon, radiation oncologist, oncologists, radiologists, and their support staffs: I am forever in their debt.

I was diagnosed almost 35 months ago; that day now seems very far in the past. As I have written elsewhere, the diagnosis of cancer is no longer a death sentence, as it truly was earlier in my lifetime. By living, we have robbed cancer of its power to overcome us, and each day is a victory.

The fact that National Cancer Survivors Day even exists is testimony to the tireless efforts of researchers and caregivers to find new ways to improve and prolong the lives of those who have been diagnosed with cancer. And, it is also a testament to those who have invented and improved methods for detecting cancers in their earliest stages (my cancer was Stage I, could not be felt, and was only visible as a cluster of microcalcifications on my mammogram).

The day is also intended to demonstrate that cancer survivors everywhere can lead active, productive lives; in most cases, much like those in their community who are living without cancer. I am still amazed that during my entire cancer treatment, including 2 surgeries, that I never spent one night in a hospital, and that I didn't have to take any work-related disability leave. I was able to work throughout my treatment.

All of us who are living with cancer face varying survivorship issues, but the important thing is that we are alive: that is what tomorrow is all about!

Take one day at a time; find joy in each day, and with those close to you. Do not allow worrying about your future to cloud your present!

Below are some links from the "Coping With Cancer" website:

More information on cancer and cancer survivorship:
National Cancer Survivors Day:
National Cancer Institute:
American Society of Clinical Oncology:
American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures:
American Cancer Society: