The last few months have been difficult and scary at times, but have also been a really great time for self growth and discovery. Although I am still dealing with some and probably always will be dealing with some of the very limiting and painful post-breast cancer side effects in addition to the side effects from the hormone therapy I will be on for the next 10-15 years, I will admit that, I do feel a tiny bit more like myself with each day that passes, which is uplifting in itself. Over the past few months, I have had several routine appointments, blood draws, scans, and X-rays that in most cases have lead to the dreaded “we have to run further testing to confirm this is not a new tumor and to confirm that your cancer is not coming back” conversation. As you can imagine, this keeps my life on an emotional roller-coaster, but it also continuously reminds me to be thankful for each and every day at the same time. I will be the first to admit that hearing those words NEVER gets easier. With each phone call my heart skips a beat and plummets into my stomach and even with my sometimes blind optimism in check, I at times still find it hard to keep my mind from going to dark places in those moments. So far a second chest x-Ray has confirmed that an opacity found on a scan is not a new breast tumor, and an echocardiogram has confirmed that I do not have any more damage to my heart then expected after taking a chemotherapy drug that decreases heart function, in addition to receiving radiation treatments that cause heart failure later, but I am still in the process of determining why my liver levels are consistently high. Elevated liver enzymes can suggest a cancer recurrence so although my levels are not dangerously high, my doctors are keeping a very close eye on things. We have been repeating and watching my blood work for months, and I have had an ultrasound done that revealed a small mass on my liver that they actually found and documented in a previous scan. However, the good news the mass hasn’t grown too much over the past year, so my oncologist is hopeful it is not cancer. Just to be sure, I will be having a CT scan in the coming weeks to rule this possibility out all together.
In addition to all this scariness, one of the hardest aspects of this past year with cancer has been and is the financial strain that unintentionally takes over your world. I never thought that I would share this aspect of the last year, because I always feared if would change the way people view me, however in talking to a few others who were affected in the same way, I feel it is a topic I need to share. To be fair, it’s hard enough to receive a diagnosis like this, and to know that your life is at stake. And to know that the treatment that could save your life is going to make you feel awful for at least a year, more like several years, but to also know that your treatment is going to mean that you are going to have to turn away work that would have helped you pay your bills that month, just seems wrong all together. It’s something that shouldn’t even be a thought when you are literally at your lowest point, yet you are fighting the hardest batter of your life. The truth is “Cancer” is extremely expensive and the surgeries and treatments for cancer often times keep you from earning the income you need to even pay for your everyday living expenses, which already puts you in a hard position. Adding ever-growing treatment and surgical bills on top of that, puts you in what I have found to be the scariest financial struggle I have ever faced. As much as Jordan has tried to keep me from stressing about the money side of things, it is obvious he is harboring enough financial worry and fear for the both of us, and I would be lying if I said it hasn’t put a bit of an unintentional stress point between us. Before leaving Columbus and moving back to Michigan, we were both bringing income to the table and I was actually the larger bread winner and the safety net for our family. I had been looking for a position that was a good fit for me, here in Grand Rapids for over a year when I was diagnosed, so to say we were already struggling before my diagnosis, is an understatement.My year with cancer has taken that struggle to a whole new level. To be honest the universe seemed to have been playing a very cruel trick on me from the beginning. After leaving Columbus which is a city that seems to have a lot of positions for creatives at my level, I have been working night and day to start a side photography business, as well as searching for a full-time art director or senior creative marketing position. For the first time in my life, I found it hard to find a position, where I have always had options to choose from in the past. The truth is there is just not a lot of available positions at a senior level in Grand Rapids. After over a year of searching I had finally found what seemed to have been the perfect senior art director position at a local ad agency, and I was in the final stages of the interview process the day before my breast cancer diagnosis smacked me in the face and turned my family’s life upside down. We tried to make it work on both ends, but the truth is, it really wasn’t a possible venture for me at the time. This year has been hard. We for the first time ever, experienced the fear that our lights were actually going to be turned off, we learned to shop for necessities only and live off of very little to ensure that Corryn had everything she needed, we acquired more debt then we ever thought possible in medical bills and just overall living expenses that we couldn’t meet, and we have been forced to swallow our pride and look to our amazing families to get us through this difficult time. Although we are still accruing debt with each treatment and surgery I face and I am very certain it will take us years to dig out of this financial “cancer” sink hole, I am finally feeling well enough to truly put myself back out on the job market and search for my next career move, which bring me hope. This is a story for a whole separate post, but I will say that although this transition is very hard to tackle post cancer, mentally I have never been more on top of my game, and I am very excited to get back into the career that I miss so much. Most of all I am hopeful that this step will take some of the pressure and stress of my hubby and my marriage.
Another VERY hard yet often dismissed aspect of life after cancer treatment is the process of making the difficult transition from being a full-time cancer patient, to being someone who appears to be a normal and fully functioning member of society or better yet is. Right off the bat I can tell you this process is WAY harder then you would think, and it is very much something you could never really understand until you yourself have experienced it. For over a year now, I have literally lived cancer in every sense of the word. Every aspect of every single day has somehow directly tied to my cancer and every ounce of my being has literally gone into the fighting this awful decease. On Feb.16th 2015, my entire life became “cancer” and anything unrelated to my fight, my treatment, or my life with the decease itself, had to go out the window. The truth is, I just didn’t have the energy to put into the little things which was in a way what led to my newfound perspective, but it has also made this transistor much harder. I will say that although I know shifting my focus last year was crucial to my fight, this disconnection from normal everyday reality has also made it harder to reconnect to my former self and my former life. Although cancer has given me a new and amazing perspective on life, it has also stripped me of everything that I considered to be normal and has very much unintentionally isolated me from everyone and everything that is not cancer related. Some where along the way, you get so caught up in the awful “C”, that you no longer have the ability to think about or relate to normal life issues that are happening to all of those you care about. People start shielding you from their everyday conversations or problems because they know their bad day could never compare to looking your own mortality in the eye. If you are anything like me, you over-think this process altogether and this epic internal struggle makes it really hard to reengage to your normal pre-cancer social settings. This has been the case with me.
In the beginning I was determined to turn my negative into a positive by facing each cancer struggle head on, in a very public way. I willingly talked about my cancer to anyone and everyone who wanted to hear about it, and from what I am hearing, I seemed emotional unaffected by it. Almost as if I was watching it happen rather then experiencing it myself. Things changed a bit about mid-way through my treatments when the reality of my scary situation truly hit me in the face, and my emotions took over. For the first time ever I found it hard to even hear or be around things that pertained to the very “word” cancer. So much to the point that I even questioned whether I would be able to pursue my passion to get more involved and make a difference in the cancer community. As the days went by and I checked off cancer treatments and milestones off my list, this fear and uncertainty got better, and eventually I found my driven, cause-based, passion, fully intact underneath all of the personal rubble. At this point, I had started to feel like I was winning the fight. I looked back on my painful year as a giant hardship that brought many blessings and I wanted to share it with everyone and anyone, but I at the same time, I started to get the impression that not everyone wanted to hear about it, so I found myself clinging to those who understood where I had been and where I was standing, because they too had faced the fight. During this time, I started going to physical therapy for a pretty pesky case of auxiliary web syndrome which is a fancy way of saying post-mastectomy or surgical cording. Although the medical world has not yet determined why this happens to some women post mastectomy, I can tell you that it can be quite painful and quite annoying to lose the ability to lift your arm above a 90 degree angle and it can take forever to get under control. I see my therapist once a week for 90 minutes. During this time, she usually thoughtfully inflicts extreme pain as she attempts to try to physically break and stretch the cords that are limiting the mobility in my left arm and shoulder, but she also provides some very deep and raw conversations about the sides of breast cancer that no one really talks about, to distract me during the process. You see she herself, is a two-time breast cancer survivor, so she knows how to treat the whole patient, in addition to the physical limitations we face post treatment. Many of our conversations have helped me to be at piece with where I am in my journey, and because she knows of my blog, her support always leaves me inspired to keep doing what I am doing. However one thing that she said early on, has stuck with me. She talked in depth about the year I am facing now…. my first year post breast cancer, and how she believes that it is and will be even harder then my initial treatment year in many ways. Some being the transition process, the inability to just jump back into your former life, the struggles I am feeling getting back to my career, the physical and sometimes new lifetime pains and challenges, the hidden emotional stress, and most of all, in her words, the fact that the sympathy that those surrounding you have towards you during your treatment year seems to naturally expire or ware off as you start to appear “less sick” on the outside and and appear less “in need of care or concern”. I have to be honest, when she first mentioned this to me at my first very in-depth evaluation, I thought to myself. “I don’t know why that would ever bother me. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me and I would love for people to stop looking at me with the worried and sad cancer eyes”. However, I am learning that she could not have been more right thus far! With every eye lash that comes in, people around me start to assume I am and should be feeling good, when in a lot of ways, I am physically feeling worse then I did during treatment and I am dealing with far worse life-changing realizations then I did during my treatment year. I now struggle with extreme muscle and joint paint from the hormone therapy that keeps me from being the active 33 year old mom I used to be. I already have the early onset of osteoporosis because of the lack of hormones in my body and that is only going to get worse. I suffer from post surgical pain in so many areas, and the romantic side of my marriage has become non-existent thanks to being put into a very early menopause. I now realize and see all that has been taken from me this past year and face that every single day and I also now have to face that cancer wasn’t just a bad year. It is the rest of my life. I now struggle internally to feel out a every situation and overthink every single thought that enters my mind and exits my mouth, because I don’t want to bring the mood down, talk about my cancer too much, or even even talk about it too little. Although cancer is always and I mean ALWAYS in the back of my mind and at the tip of my tongue, I am constantly trying to gage a situation to keep unwanted cancer talk out if I don’t think it’s a topic that wants to be heard, and I am trying like hell to think and feel normal feelings that allow me to relate on a normal personal level. I think the hardest part is that now that I have sprouting hair and budding eyelashes, some no longer even ask how I am doing, or even seem to remember that I just faced the hardest fight of my life and that I am still facing the biggest struggle of my life. Although I tell myself this is not the case and that others are trying not to bring it up to be helpful, I find myself feeling somewhat hurt by this and most of all fearing that some closest to me no longer care how I am doing, or or worse yet, would just rather not talk about it anymore. I believe this is the exact struggle my therapist waswarning me about, and it is a struggle that is VERY active in my mind right now. The truth is cancer didn’t just happen to me last year. I am not and really never will be out of the past it, because there will always be a chance that my cancer could come back. Cancer; the fears, the pains, the worry, and the side effects will always be apart of my life and no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to fully put it behind me and move forward in a life that doesn’t directly tie to the very word. Although I know that I do not have to be defined by my cancer, cancer has and is continuing to define aspects of the person I will become. As much as I try to hide this and pretend that I am still a normal functioning part of society, the truth is I am not, and I am going to choose to believe that this is a good thing going forward. Maybe normal is over-rated.
At this point I am moving forward with a positive mind and an open heart and most of all, I am remaining optimistic that life is going to turn around for my family and I. I truly believe that because of cancer and I have even more to offer a creative team and I am optimistic that my experiences over the past year have lead me down a path I was destined to walk. I have started interviewing with a few local companies and I am happy to say things are looking good. I also have the most passionate project of my life in the works to bring awareness to the breast cancer cause and I truly believe it is leading me to discover my true purpose. Unfortunately things will be getting real for me again as I prepare for my next reconstructive surgery tomorrow morning but this is a good thing as well. Although my surgeon will not know exactly how much can be done until she gets in there, we are hopeful that I will at the very least be starting the reconstruction process on the right side with the placement of a tissue expander, and I will be having a second round of grafting done as well. I have personally never feared my surgeries in the way my friends and family fear it for me, however I will say that knowing how much pain is heading my way due to this grafting process in my legs, does have me dreading day break. The grafting that was done is December was by far my hardest surgery/recovering. I literally didn’t have the strength to stand on my own for the first week, Corryn wasn’t able to sit on my lap for months, and I still have some pain when walking up stairs. I will admit that I am a bit bummed that my over progress will be pushed back a bit after tomorrow. I am just starting to feel a little bit more energetic and mobile, so this surgery will knock me down a few pegs for sure. In this case, I actually believe it’s better not to know what’s coming my way so I’m going to try to forget.
To take the positive approach, I am really looking forward to a long medicine induced nap, and I have been burning the candle at both ends for a few months now in working on my passion project and searching for a creative position,so I am pretty sure this is exactly what I need to remind myself to relax a bit again and take care of me. In the hours before surgery, I am tying up loose ends, and I am trying to remind myself to be thankful for both my medical team and the fact that I will be checking another box my medical/surgical list. This year has taught me that there is light in even the darkest of tunnels and having just a little bit of hope can take you a long way. Right now, I am hopeful that I will be one step closer to getting my life back after tomorrow’s surgery.