The Cost Of Survival: A Diary Of Breast Cancer, Six Years On

October 15, 2017

It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A time when I ask myself the haunting question: is my cancer back?

The bright sun and heat call me off the beach in the middle of the day.

My new normal does not tolerate heat, and I must not get sunburned; early morning and evening strolls suit me better now. A nondescript motel room with a small balcony becomes my beach during the heat of the day as I listen to the symphony created by the ebb and flow of the tide.

Returning to this humble family beach makes me pensive. New shops have appeared, and places I loved have disappeared, yet the ocean currents seem unchanged by the pain and drama of my life. The sea welcomes me once again, inviting me into the rhythm and solace of the tide as I squint to see the white-capped waves tumbling to shore.

I was last on this island six years ago, a few weeks after undergoing a double mastectomy, before the start of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Like the ocean, that journey lay before me as far as I could see. As the waves crashed on the sand, so my cancer and impending treatments crashed around me. At times it was gently rolling, unfolding around me. Other times it crashed with so much force it swallowed me up. I came here to retreat, to let the rhythm and solace of the ocean tide engulf me and hold me as I clung to hope.

Six years later, my old struggles are replaced with new ones.

Six. Years.

That’s a significant span of time when you have cancer – a period of my life that aged my soul and body far more than six years’ worth. When people tell me, “You’re strong; you did good,” I wonder what that really means. How do you “do” breast cancer well?

Each phase of survival brings new lessons. When will I be able to embrace my identity as a “survivor”? Am I a survivor when treatment is over? No one wants to remain a victim. At each check-up, I wonder if this will be the day I see my doctor’s brow furrow with concern. Each new ache and pain brings with it a wave of anticipatory anxiety, along with the haunting question: is my cancer back?

Life is reframed when you have breast cancer; my focus narrowed. Juggling my work and my health was at the center of everything. Being sick means more bills – hidden expenses that don’t show up on an insurance claim. And I worked in hospice; each time we admitted a patient with breast cancer, I faced my own mortality. But those bills had to be paid; I couldn’t afford not to work. My job, my relationships, my health care, my home, and my church became the waves crashing around me, swallowing me up.

The scars on my body, soul, and spirit remain; they tell the story of my journey. As I look at my old bald-headed pictures, another face stares back at me. Clothing hides the alterations in my body, but each time I get dressed, the evidence is right there in the mirror. I take hormone-suppressing medications in hopes of keeping the cancer at bay, and the side effects linger. How long shall I continue treatment? There are always decisions to make – and so many questions, begging for answers.

We all want to say our cancer does not define us. Yet, it certainly changes us.

I’m not as strong or physically adept as I used to be; a full life may look different than it did six years ago. Does cancer define me? When are life decisions about my cancer, and when are they just about life? Is life more stressful because I had cancer, or is this just how life is? I want to embrace where I am now; I want to release the fear cancer brought into my life. I want to exhale.

The island is my teacher. Is life meant to be like jumping into one wave after another, or can I savor wading on the edge, refusing to retreat from the waves? Can I observe the ebb and flow of the tide, strolling gently in the coolness of morning and evening, taking in the sunrises and sunsets without being scorched in the heat of the day? There’s a cost to relinquishing the pressure to be successful, to get ahead, to prove myself. Maybe the cost is living more authentically and with greater depth – being more fully alive. Could it be that cancer is also my teacher?

I marvel at the vastness of the ocean, and of life. Yet I also marvel at the vulnerability of the ocean and of life. It is not something to take for granted. It is precious, it is unpredictable, and it holds me in awe of creation.

I came here to retreat, to let the rhythm and solace of the ocean tide engulf me and hold me as I cling to hope.

Images via tumblr.com and favim.com.

Head to the National Breast Cancer Foundation to find out how you can help raise much-needed funds and awareness of the devastating illness that is breast cancer, this October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Comment: How has breast cancer affected you, or someone you love?

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