This post is dedicated to every woman who is fighting, has fought, or will have to fight breast cancer. “Never, never, never give up.” ~Winston Churchill
“Actually, it is a malignancy.” These were the five words that instantly changed my life forever. These were the words of my surgeon who was “pretty sure” two days earlier that the lump I found in my chest a few months before was just a cyst or dense breast tissue. Nothing to be too concerned about. “Of course, there is always the possibility of cancer,” he told me, “but not a large one.” I clung tight to these words and went in for my biopsy ready to just get it over with and head back to New York where I was living and loving my cancer-free life. Two days later I was told I have invasive ductal carcinoma. I have cancer.
I wrote these words nine months ago, just days before heading in for my double mastectomy where I would wake up to be informed that the cancer had spread and was stage three. I was 28 years old. Today I will wake up and head to the hospital for treatment for the very. last. time. Sadly, the hospital has become more of a home to me over the last year. I know a majority of the workers there, many of them read my blog and pray for me daily. They are my family. They saved my life.
When I look back at the girl I was last September I don’t even recognize her. Not because of the scars I now carry across my chest. Not because I look like a boy with my hair barely an inch long after losing it during chemo. Not because my skin is red, blistered, and burned from radiation treatment. I don’t recognize her because of who I have become, and what I have learned about myself, whether I wanted to or not. I have learned so much that I have compiled a top ten list of these lessons as a “farewell” to cancer and a “hello” to the rest of my life. I hope you enjoy.
My “What I Learned from Cancer Top 10 List”
1. Listen to your body. It knows you better than you do.
I was asked the other day what one of the main things is that I have learned from this experience. I thought for a while and responded, “to listen to your body.” After housing a large, aggressive tumor in my body rent-free for a little under a year, I find it pretty important to try and become more in-tune with my body these days. I look back on the year I spent before my diagnosis, when the cancer was growing and spreading, while I was living in New York City. I remember being tired but not thinking anything of it. I just figured it was the stress of grad school and busy city life, nothing more. Well, of course it wasn’t just the stress of school, but rather my body was trying to tell me something and I wasn’t listening. Before my double mastectomy, I spoke with my family about the potential news that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and possibly to other places in my body. I told my family not to worry. I told them that I knew it had spread, but not far—only to a few lymph nodes. I had felt some pain in my armpit and I was listening to my body and it is sort of unexplainable but I just knew. I came out of surgery and discovered I was exactly right—the cancer had spread, but just to my lymph nodes, and to only a few. I know to some of you this may sound bizarre. That there is no way I could have known what was happening inside my body for sure. But seeing as though I was dead on—I choose to listen to my body from here on out. Your body is a magnificent thing that works in surprising ways. You just have to listen.
2. Learn to forgive.
In the words of the great Deepak Chopra, “Holding on to resentment is like holding your breath—you suffocate.” As if dealing with my situation at-hand—diagnosis, treatment, and minute-by-minute bodily changes isn’t enough—I am all too often faced with individuals constantly giving my patience a run for its money. At times, I feel as though dealing with cancer places character-building exercises in front of you on an almost daily basis. It takes a strong person to deal with some of the things people say, almost in passing, to you when you are faced with a cancer diagnosis. I struggle with these moments that arise in a blink of an eye and pass almost as quickly, but stick with me for days and weeks to come. Like when an acquaintance of mine wanted to list off to me all of the people she knew that died from breast cancer. Her purpose was to show me how she could “identify with me and my story,” but I am convinced that there must have been another way to accomplish that goal. I just stood there in shock, barely able to respond. Trying not to be rude, biting my tongue, just praying she would stop.
This is just one illustration of those ever-present character-building exercises you will find yourself working through during your journey with cancer. It sheds a whole new light on friends of mine that have conveniently forgotten my phone number or simply not been there for me during this time. I know people deal differently and I know people often do not know what to say. It makes me sad because I have never been that person that makes people uncomfortable due to a health issue. I much prefer to make people uncomfortable with my humor. Making people uncomfortable because I have cancer is just so lame. Many close friends of mine did not know how to react to the news that I had cancer. News flash: I did not either! After this realization, I just sort of gave them a “free pass” so to speak. If they didn’t know how to deal, fine…I will see you on the other side (of cancer, that is).
3. Taking time for yourself is not selfish—it is necessary.
I don’t know if you are like me, but for some reason I have been programmed to feel guilty when I want to take some time for myself. I would always try to rush myself through workouts or grab dinner on the go, trying to get back to more important things like work, school, etc. I look around me and see others rushing and racing through life as well. During this cancer-trip I have realized that taking care of yourself, whether it be exercise or eating right, meditation, yoga, or just living in the moment, should really take priority—it should not be an afterthought. It is not selfish to drop those kids of yours off at daycare and head to the gym or to take time to plan out healthy foods to eat. You want to be around a long time and that begins with your health. Never feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Feel guilty when you don’t.
4. You can choose to not be stressed. You can make that deliberate decision and make it happen.
Stress is in every single one of our lives. It is inescapable. Throughout this journey I have discovered that before my diagnosis I really did not know how to deal well with stress. This realization is sort of a breakthrough for me actually. School, work, and life would stress me out and I just figured it was something I had to live with. Then I got cancer and realized it is something I cannot live with. I need to figure out how to control it. What is my secret weapon now? Breathing and meditation. Yes, it is that simple. When I feel anxiety approaching, I simply exit the situation and breathe. My sister-in-law, Christina, taught me this trick. I know, you are thinking right now that you wish you had just played Words with Friends instead of reading this blog entry because, duh, everyone needs to breathe. But, stop and think…are you really breathing? Christina is a physical therapist and health and wellness guru and noticed that I pretty much hold my breath while I talk. Since I never shut up this is a problem. So, now, I take time to breathe (strong, deliberate breaths): when I am stressed, when I am driving, before I go to bed…whenever I can. It helps me relax, it allows my organs to deal with the physical manifestations stress can cause, and it has the ability to prevent my cancer from recurring. You can take control of your stress and it can save your life.
5. Open yourself up for great things to happen.
I strongly believe that good things happen to those people who open themselves up to the possibility. During this experience I have reached the lives of hundreds of people and that has been the absolute biggest blessing throughout all of this. People from all across the globe—literally (hi Australian readers!) have emailed me in support. Here is an example of the lives I have been able to touch: One night, while I was just sitting on the couch with my sister watching Bravo (watching reality tv together is our ultimate escape), I received an email from Lindsay, the founder and CEO of “Bright Pink,” an organization dedicated to the prevention and early detection of cancer in young women. I had emailed her that previous week to just say “thank you” for all that Bright Pink does. Her organization was highlighted on the season premiere of Giuliana and Bill, a reality show about the ever-fabulous Giuliana and Bill Rancic. Giuliana was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time I was. I had always been a huge fan of hers. I felt like we should be best friends. My fandom was taken to a whole new level when I discovered she was fighting breast cancer too and she still managed to remain full-blown amazeballs (that one’s for you, Giuliana). Her strength inspired me and assured me that I could get through all of this as well.
Ok, back to me on the couch with the sis…I received an email from Lindsay saying that she had forwarded my email along to Giuliana and that Giuliana was tweeting about my blog right then. I shot up from the couch and started screaming at my sister. “Katie,” I screamed, “Giuliana reads my blog!!!!!! Giuliana is tweeting about me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And then I instantaneously joined twitter and saw her comment about my blog and I am pretty sure I lost consciousness at that point. When I awoke I received another email—this time from Giuliana herself. She just wanted to reach out to me, she said. She was reading my blog and loved it. She said I inspired her. She read portions to Bill. I was ecstatic. And then, moments later, the Pope called me. Ok, the Pope didn’t call me, but getting an email from one of my personal heroes is still pretty stellar.
So, I have learned to expect good things and they will happen. There is a scary alignment between your thoughts and your experiences, so think good thoughts.
6. A multi-vitamin is your body’s insurance policy.
Let’s face it; you aren’t eating broccoli and kale for every meal. Because of this, you need to fill in the gaps. Vitamins and minerals are not an option in life; they are a requirement—just like speech class your freshman year. Find a good multivitamin, stick it in your day, now.
7. Laughter really is the best medicine.
There are studies that show that mood truly helps your battle with, and recovery from, cancer and other illnesses. There are also studies that demonstrate how the simple act of sharing with others improves your health. So, the lesson we learn here is: find funny friends and share a multi-vitamin with them. End of discussion.
8. Be who you are. No excuses.
Being normal is totally lame and normal people don’t have any fun. You have one life. Be who you are. Thank you, readers, for allowing me to be me through all of this. E.E. Cummings put it best when he said, “It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.” So, be courageous.
9. You aren’t waiting for your life to start anymore. This is your life.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you are struggling with this one all I can say is that a goal in our lives should be to do whatever we are doing right now well. Don’t save up your fabulous to use later on. Cash it in now. Maybe we aren’t where we always imagined ourselves being, but we are where we are so we might as well make the best of it. When I was diagnosed with cancer, and looked ahead at what I was about to go through, I thought that I was going to show cancer what was up. I was going to be the best at it. I was going to take care of myself, not let chemo break me. I did my best, I did it well, and with that I can close this chapter of my life knowing I gave it all I’ve got.
10. You have to continually believe in yourself.
I never got a straight answer from any of my doctors about how bad my cancer really was. They also never assured me that things were going to be OK. None of them ever looked at me and said, “Abby, everything is going to be just fine. You will live through this, have ten babies, and be an editor of Vogue.” So, I told myself that I was going to be just fine. You have to be your biggest cheerleader. No one else is going to do it, so you better whip out your pom poms and cheer your heart out.
Although this portion of my story is coming to a close there are still hundreds of thousands of women fighting this battle each and every day. My thoughts and prayers remain with them. If any of you reading this right now are battling breast cancer, my hope for you is that you take a moment and see how far I have come and know that you too will get through this and reach the finish line smiling because you did it. If you are sad that my story is coming to an end because you want to keep up with my progress: I am, and will be, fantastic. And if you’ve followed along with me during this journey, you know I will be.
Thank you, readers, for coming on this journey with me. It would have been impossible to do it alone. Much love to each and every one of you. That’s a wrap.