This week I celebrate 9 years of Cancer Survivorship and I am filled with gratitude and reflection. It has been 9 years since I heard the words that literally sent me crashing to the floor, “The cells are malignant, you have breast cancer.” 9 years since I was filled with questions like, “Will my children know me? How many years do I have left with Jay? My mom had 4 years, will it be the same for me? Where do I find the strength to get though this? ”
Breast cancer was not a new word for me. I knew it well. My mother died of metastatic breast cancer when I was 20. I assumed one day I would get breast cancer, I just thought it wouldn’t be at the age of 32. I thought I had more time.
Following my diagnosis I woke up every morning thinking it was a nightmare, then the reality would sink in. Reality of long days of Dr. appointments in New York City, reality of the pain after my bilateral mastectomy and removal of lymph nodes, reality of the sickness from chemo, reality of the anxiety of having triple negative breast cancer that had high recurrence rates. The reality of being a young mom and wife through all of it. Lillian was 4 months old and Nate was 2 1/2 when I was diagnosed, I was overwhelmed and anxious while trying to just welcome each day I had the best I could.
This cancerversary seems to be occupying more mind space than other years. I have such immense gratitude and there is a part of me that wishes I could talk to that scared young woman.
I remember I didn’t want my picture taken and in hindsight I am glad I have some photos of those difficult days. Sometimes I feel like I lost 2 years of my life due to cancer, but when I look through photos I am reminded of the joyful moments and smiles and beauty of life.
Photos also remind me how far I have come, how many bonus days I have had. Facing your mortality at a young age is hard and trying but also has brought many blessings. It is a true dose of perspective whenever I need it. It has made me more compassionate, empathetic, a stronger and more grounded mother and wife, and reminds me of what is important in this beautiful life we all have.
When I thought of what I would tell myself after my breast cancer diagnosis I immediately thought of the photo below. It was the night that I shaved my head. That morning I woke up to clumps falling out and knew I needed to take back some control so out came the buzzer. It was one of the most empowering moments of my life. I asked Nate if he wanted to help me and he was overjoyed to. We were in his bathroom and he was giggling and said, “Mom, you look silly.” I asked him if I could shave his and he said, “No Way!” Ha! We continued to laugh and I looked in the mirror, cue the scene from The Legend of Billie Jean and Pat Benetar…
“We are strong
No one can tell us we're wrong
Searching our hearts for so long
Both of us knowing…”
What would I tell that scared young mom in the photo smiling through her fears?
First, I would tell her she is going to be o.k. “No matter what happens, you are going to be alright!" The truth is there is no other choice. We can’t choose our circumstances but we can choose our reactions and our next steps.
I would tell her that her children will know her! “They will know your smile, your crazy kitchen dancing, the love you and Jay have and what is important to you. They will know you like listening to Jack Johnson and your love of the salt air. You will get to annoy them by limiting their sugar and they will challenge you on why our family is so healthy. You will get to visit new places with them and they will have you there for the start of Third Grade and Middle School!”
“Yes, they WILL see you at your worst, but also your best! They will know a mother’s love and your hugs and reassurance.”
“THERE WILL BE DAYS WHEN YOU DON’T THINK ABOUT CANCER! It will take some time, years, but one day you will realize, ‘Wow I didn’t think of cancer today!’ That day you will know another layer of healing has taken place.”
I would tell her that healing isn’t linear. That there are layers upon layers of healing. “One by one they will peel back and you will feel whole again. Like you, only better.”
“You will be grateful for everyone that has been a part of your life journey. Your husband, sisters and friends will be your lifelines. You will learn kindness like you never knew and you will learn how to ask for help and to accept it!”
I would tell her that she will have other health challenges, but she will get through, as she did with cancer, one day at a time.
“You will deal with anxiety, and even some panic attacks, but will fill your toolbox with more tools than you ever though could fit in one! You will even learn to meditate and enjoy it.”
“You will know more joy than you thought possible and you will feel healthier than you ever thought possible.”
“You will learn so much about self care that you would not believe me if I tried to tell you at the moment! You will create a healthy home for your children to reduce their risk of cancer. You will be overwhelmed, but if you just slow down, you will be o.k. Take small steps, the more you force being o.k. the longer it will take to achieve healing. Embrace it instead of fighting it. Give yourself time to heal. The cancer cells are gone, but survivorship is even more challenging in many ways.”
“You will become a cancer and wellness advocate, helping and empowering other young women along the way, as you were helped by other survivors and amazing organizations! Your passion will be helping others choose a healthier way of living.”
“Your younger sister will be diagnosed with breast cancer a few years after you and you will want to shield her from the path of cancer. Watching her go through it will be harder than you think. You will learn that it is her journey, not yours, and she will be one of the lucky ones too. You will both deal with the collateral damage of cancer, different after effects, but you will both make it years without recurrence.”
“You will lose friends and see other friends deal with a metastatic diagnosis. There will not be a cure soon enough! But in the meantime stay present and continue to find peace in your own journey.”
So here I am at 9 years from that Friday night when I heard my diagnosis and my life was forever changed. I had headed into surgery a short two weeks later and chemo started 4 weeks after that. It is a path I wouldn’t have chosen but it is how Pink became my color. I feel such deep gratitude for the past 9 years, what I refer to as my bonus years.
Wherever this post finds you on your life journey I am sending out peace, love, light and healing!
In health, Katerina