Five. 

Today marks five years since I was diagnosed. It has been five years since I walked into my doctor’s office as a young, invincible (or so I thought), NYU graduate student and walked out a 28-year-old cancer patient with stage three breast cancer to fight. It doesn’t feel like it has been 5 years. It feels more like it has been 25 years, give or take. These years didn’t “fly” by, they dragged by with many a night spent curled up in a fetal position scared beyond belief that the cancer would return and take my life. That is “survivorship.” That is the ugly truth. The fact is, a cancer diagnosis changes you and it doesn’t change you back when treatment ends. You go on while holding your breath and quietly tiptoe around the beast.

Every time I try and write a post about making it to this point the words always seem to fall short. The last five years have taken me down a road I could have never imagined. This journey has found me at my lowest points and also some of my highest. I have wept and I have laughed. I have gained scars and gained friendships. I have fallen down, repeatedly, but I have continued to get back up no matter how ugly and difficult it was. No one really has a guidebook for young adult cancer survivorship and how it will profoundly impact and shape the trajectory of your life regardless of your attempts to return to your pre-cancer self. But I am here. Five years later, I am here. What an incredible gift. That is a gift many of my friends I met along the way did not receive and I am not sure as to why. There are many days that I wonder, and plead with God for answers. Some days that “survivor’s guilt” is so strong it is almost too heavy a burden to bear. 

The weather is turning. The summer season is fading away and autumn, what has always been my favorite season (because PUMPKINS!), is beginning to show its face. Every year around this time, I am reminded of what was lurking around the corner for me five years ago. The smell in the air reminds me, the pumpkin spiced lattes remind me, and the crunch of the leaves reminds me of that fateful day. I am reminded that the day I went to the doctor’s office to receive my biopsy results I had planned to go pumpkin picking that evening – my very favorite autumnal activity—and came out of that appointment with the news that would forever change my life. Needless to say, my pumpkin patch visit that evening was immediately canceled. Instead, my mother and I drove home in shocked silence as tears streamed down my face. When we arrived home, my mom immediately walked out of the house to pace around the yard for what seemed like hours. My dad arrived that night from a business trip and sat by my side. His calming influence during that storm is something I will never forget. My sister flew in the next day for reinforcement. The battle plan was being formulated and the life I had known for twenty eight years ceased to exist.  

I remember my surgeon talking about my future the week I was diagnosed, about getting me to two years, five years, even fifty years down the road and I couldn’t see it. As hard as I strained to see that light at the end of the tunnel that he spoke of, I could not. It felt impossible. Unreachable. It was all just pitch black. I was sitting all alone in a very large, dark room and I couldn’t see out. The only way I was able to get out, the only reason I am here writing this post today, is because of the hundreds of hands that selflessly and often forcefully reached their hand towards mine and pulled me out of that dreadful place. Most likely if you are reading this post, you are one of those people, and from the bottom of my heart I thank you and promise that as my forever gift back, I commit myself to reaching out to others in their own dark place and yanking them back out towards the light.

Everyone that goes through something like cancer has to fight like they never have before to reach a milestone like this. I look back at the last five years and think of the things I would have missed out on if I hadn’t had the opportunity to fight and if I hadn’t been lucky: the friends I have met, the best friend I got to marry, the home we have made, the experiences, the trips, the beauty in people and places I have had the opportunity to witness—I would have missed it all. I have seen a very dark side of life that most individuals my age have not had to face. I learned some very important lessons about life, and integrity, and believing in who you are. I learned about confidence and the power we all have within us to move mountains, to change our own course, and, when necessary, to just keep swimming.

There are constant reminders of the battle I went through: the fact that I still get itches in my right arm that I cannot scratch (phantom itches as they are known to cancer survivors), the fact that I will never have full feeling back in that arm, the fact that I have and will continue to face intense periods of respiratory distress (think multiple collapsed lungs), the fact that I can’t cry as much as I used to (I swear, cancer took away most of my tears), and the fact that when I go running I have to hold my right arm up several times mid-jog to get my lymphatic system to cooperate looking like a complete weirdo. Aches and pains still freak me out as I am sure they always will—I will always be looking in my “rearview mirror” so to speak. I just hope the glimpses back become less and less with continued focus ahead.

I am not sure the point of this post other than to check in, exhale, and simply say after five years that “I made it.” Typing that seemingly simple sentence, that I indeed made it to the five year mark, is so simple and yet so incredibly complex. Looking back at the fight, it was well worth it because I am here experiencing this moment and knowing that fact is enough for me right now. 

Today, I choose to take a deep breath and remember the strength I found inside myself to get to this point. And to CELEBRATE the journey. It was worth it. I am here. Every test was worth it. Every surgery was worth it. Every trip to the doctor was worth it. Every prick of the needle, every scan, every medication, every lost follicle, every inch of burned skin, every setback, and every heartache was just one more step. I believe we can all get so lost in our own particular brand of mess to see that worth in the journey sometimes and we need others to provide perspective, hope, and clarity. Today, let me be the one to provide that for you. The dark days bring the light. And that light, that beautiful light that is this precious life we are given and the people and experiences that bless it, makes it all worth it. Hugs to you, dear reader. Thank you for coming along this journey with me.

I Am Thankful

After my let’s-talk-about-chemo-appointment with my oncologist, I had one final task before I am set to begin chemo (besides getting my port put in, but I refuse to remotely acknowledge that that is even happening, so that degree of denial is working thus far). My final task was to speak with a fertility specialist. But first, a brief Chemo 101 session: Chemo attacks rapidly dividing cells, those that are cancerous and unfortunately those that are not. Chemo does not discriminate, it just attacks. The areas of attack include the ovaries and other such areas that we really do not want the chemo to mess with at all. I needed to speak with a fertility doctor in order to discuss what chemo was going to do to the possibility of me having a family of my own one day.

So I sat down with a fertility doctor to discuss options. One of the first questions out of his mouth was, “Are you married?” “No,” I had the privilege to say to yet another medical professional, “I am not married.” The entire medical community seems to be overly preoccupied with my marital status if you ask me. This is not eHarmony, people. I cannot count the number of times my single-hood has come up in conversation with my medical team. He explained that the task of fertilizing an egg after it was initially frozen is difficult. Generally you need to fertilize the egg, THEN freeze. Bummer, I thought. I was really hoping I could walk in, my doctor could do a few tricks, harvest some eggs, put them safely away somewhere, and then when I am ready to have some little ones I could just head back to my vault-o-eggs and get the party started. But of course, I am not married. I have no one to fertilize my eggs. I think to myself—yet another outright discrimination against all the single ladies. Unbelievable. So, my mind wandered to the possibility of obtaining a sperm donor. Perhaps Ryan Gosling is available? If only I had his cell phone number…

What are my other options if, for some strange reason, I can’t get Ryan Gosling on the phone? My fertility doctor proceeded to inform me of this miraculous shot that they can give me to put my ovaries “on pause.” Basically, the chemo won’t attack the ovaries if they are on pause. We are totally going to pull a fast one on the chemo! Awesome, I think, sign me up! My ovaries aren’t really doing me any favors at the moment anyway, so let’s pause them, shall we? He mentions that I will not have any periods while I am on the shot. EVEN BETTER, I think. Oh, he says, a minor detail he failed to mention… “You will go through menopause…TEMPORARILY.”

I just looked back at the doctor blankly and smiled. OF COURSE I WILL!!!!!!!!!!!! Why wouldn’t I go through menopause? At this point, he could have told me that my skin was going to turn bright purple and my head was going to explode and I really wouldn’t have been surprised. So much has happened to me, and my poor body in the last few months, that the sky is really the limit. So, I opted to go into menopause, voluntarily (if you can really call it that). The doctor warned me of the hot flashes, moodiness, weight gain, and fatigue associated with menopause. Whatever, doc. Just give me the shot. Who are we kidding? Obviously, if I have the ability to protect my ovaries in order to have a child in the future, I will do what I need to do. How to make menopause chic will be a hefty task but I am up to the challenge!

A few days later I showed up to my oncologist’s office where I was supposed to be getting this shot that will send me into menopause at the age of 28. I am doing this for the possibility of having a family someday, I told myself, and I walked in confidently. Until, of course, the oncology nurse led me back to the chemo room and told me to sit and wait in there. NOT THE CHEMO ROOM! I had glanced at it a few times, always quickly turning away. It always seemed so sad in there, cold, and depressing. I looked around and saw about ten people getting their chemo administered. One lady was on her cell phone. She looked as though she was wheeling and dealing. She had no plans on letting her cancer slow her down. I immediately loved her. Another woman was there with her husband and he was holding her hand. How sweet. Another woman was sitting with a friend and they were eating some trail mix and playing cards. Just a little girl time in the chemo room. I continued to scan the crowd and I saw a few people who looked like they were at least half dead, possibly worse.

I panicked, I started to cry, I looked at my mom and told her that surely there was some mistake. “Why am I in here? Why am I in here? WHY AM I IN HERE??!!?” I kept repeating this. Are they about to give me chemo? What is happening? I was losing it at this point. My mom asked one of the nurses and they explained that the chemo room is where they administer the shots as well. I quickly determined that this is obviously a terrible plan. After that initial moment of thinking I was going to get chemo on accident I got the menopause shot and headed home. I sat there waiting for my first hot flash, I kept looking in the mirror expecting my backside to grow exponentially in front of my very eyes, or I thought at least a severe onset of the menopause mood swings was about to take over my body. Nothing happened. I continued to wait. In the following days the one symptom I noticed was fatigue. I got extremely tired. I am determined not to gain menopause weight and keep my backside in check, so I walk every morning (I still can’t run after the surgery) and try and be as active as possible.

Other than the menopause, I am doing just fine! Yes, chemo is quickly approaching. My first treatment session will be next Tuesday. So, if you think of me next Tuesday, send up a prayer or transmit some positive vibes my way because I sure am going to need it. And if you aren’t partial to prayer or positive vibes find someone that is and have them send out a few.

Since it is Thanksgiving and all, I feel it only appropriate to express a few things that I am most thankful for this year. I am thankful for my family. First, I am thankful for my mother who has stuck by my side, not only through this experience, but also through every moment, both good and bad, in my life. She has been my rock and I would not have made it through any of this without her. I am thankful that whenever I am next to her I know I will always be safe and that is the most precious feeling in the world to me. I am thankful for my father who taught me that I can do whatever I want to in this world. He taught me to do everything I do with everything I’ve got, and the passion I carry for what I believe in and the people I love is a direct reflection of that. He also taught me how to make people laugh, and how to laugh at myself, which I do frequently and gladly. I am thankful for my sister who prayed for me to come into this world when she was a little girl every night before she went to sleep. I am also thankful that she didn’t take me out of this world when I did arrive and became a pesky (and perhaps annoying at times) little sister. I am thankful for my brother-in-law, because I always tell my sister that I want to marry someone just like him. Not in a creepy way, people, but because he is one of the best men I know. I am thankful for my nephew, because he has taught me the power and beauty of unconditional love. He has also taught me everything I need to know about super heros. And I am thankful for my niece, because she has taught me the power and beauty of unconditional cuteness, which she is highly aware that she possesses.

I am thankful for the survivors I have spoken with (family members, friends, and people I do not even know have reached out to me), and those who have called and left me voicemails and emails, those who have shared their story and provided me with hope. Linda, a survivor and a good friend of my mother, has been an inspiration to me. The day I was diagnosed I went to Linda’s house, when my whole world was spinning out of control. When I didn’t know if I was going to be able to fight my cancer and beat it. When I knew I had a massive cancerous tumor in my body. Linda walked me through everything I needed to expect, and she was where I got that initial spark of hope—that first inkling that I clung to when I realized that everything was going to be ok. It wasn’t going to be fun, but I was going to live, and anything else just is not an option.

I am thankful for my friends who have provided me with such an overwhelming amount of support. It is simply impossible to express how touched I have been by all of them during this difficult time. I am thankful for the old and cherished memories I have been able to share with them and the hope I have for the ability to share in making new ones. I am thankful for the laughter that my friends have provided for me, which I will always consider to be the best medicine of all.

And finally, I am thankful for these final days before chemo begins where I still feel excellent, I still have my energy, I still have my hair, and I still appreciate the magnificence of simple carbohydrates which I plan on indulging myself in over the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for.