Five Year Cancerversary

fiveyearsToday marks the five year anniversary of the day I heard the words nobody wants to hear. “You have cancer”. The five year “cancerversary” is a big milestone for most cancer survivors because, statistically, after five years the chances of recurrence drop significantly. For me, that part no longer applies since my cancer has already metastasized. Despite that, I’m still going to celebrate my five year survivorship. I’m still surviving. Looking back, these five years have certainly had rough spots. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that. 

These five years have also been packed with love, adventure and great experiences. Looking back, these have been some of the best years of my life. I married the love of my life. We bought a house together and built a home (We’re days away from finishing our kick-ass bathroom renovation!). We’ve become a tight family of four. I joined Team Phoenix and gained an entire family of amazing sisters. I completed two triathlons, and encouraged my kids to try it. We took an epic two month long trip (our “Familymoon”) in a vintage RV named Cliff. We camped and explored several National Parks, include some amazing places in the Canadian Rockies. We rode horses to a tea house high over Lake Louis. We’ve come face to face with a grizzly bear and her baby. We’ve ridden motorcycles through these breath-taking National Parks. We’ve slept under a meteor showers in the Badlands. We’ve hiked glaciers, stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, sat in natural hot springs, jumped off a cliff into an icy Blue Hole, and hike to remote Cliff dwellings. I’ve been blessed. These five years with family and friends have brought me so much joy. 

Our plans for new adventures are always bubbling. We have a couple more trips planned for 2019 already and my bucket list is over-flowing with adventures I want to share with my family. I also have a few applications in for retreats that have been established for cancer patients. One includes the family and one is all about pampering little ole’ me. 

I can certainly say that cancer has changed my life in many ways. It has become cliche, but the diagnosis has made me more aware of the things that are important. It has helped me shed the things that were holding me down. It  has taught me to listen to my body and take care of my health. It has given me a sense of urgency to live fully and pack in the things I want to do and share with my family. It has taught me to say “yes” to the challenges, get-togethers, and activities, in case I don’t get another chance. (Well-except for the “Frosty 5K” race that my friends did in spite of negative 20 degree temperatures- That challenge was not for me…) It has also made me aware of my mortality (a condition all of us share). Not one of us knows how long we have to live, and nobody has an expiration date stamped on them. I now take each day as it comes and do what I can. Some are better than others, but I’m sure that’s not unique to me.

Life has become a tough balancing act, facing an incurable illness. The pains and fatigue and sickness are real. The fear of what the future holds is real. My goal is to not let that fear paralyze me. Fear won’t stop me from planning my future. Fear won’t stop me from pushing my limits. Fear won’t stop me from taking each day for what it is, good and bad. My goal is to stay strong (thank you Team Phoenix for making it a priority to be Strong, Proud, Alive and Re-Defined!!). My goal is to raise my daughters and give them the opportunities to learn and grow and explore the world. My goal is to thrive despite a cancer diagnosis. I’ll always have hope that the good days outweigh the rough days. I’ll always have hope for a cure. I’m taking it one step at a time. Today-I’m celebrating five years thriving with cancer. I hope there will be cake! (Honey-will there be cake?)

Deconstructing Sue

Last night was a sleepless night with pre-surgery anxiety.  I am 100% sure that the surgery to remove the implant and damaged skin, scheduled for tomorrow, is absolutely the right decision.  Yet I spent the night, tossing and turning, deconstructing every aspect of reconstruction and deconstruction.  Part of me wishes that I had  originally chosen not to reconstruct at all, saving myself a lot of pain, surgery, and struggle over the past year.  On the other hand, I’m not convinced that I want to spend the rest of my (long) life disfigured in that way.  Seems a petty thing to worry about after all I’ve been through this past year.

Lympha Press

My arm in a Lympha Press

What I do know, is that the implant has to go.  Timing is everything, and, sadly, I may have postponed this surgery a week too long.  This week was a struggle with searing pain in my chest and back and lymphedema in my right arm.  My skin is unable to heal itself, and I’m on my third course of antibiotics to keep the infection in check.  I am counting the minutes until I can get the surgery over with, and allow myself to heal.  I wanted to be sure before doing anything so I wouldn’t second guess my decision.  My PT said, “you can second guess yourself all you want, but it won’t do any good.  You may have second guessed a decision to do the surgery earlier, too”.  She has a valid point.  All I can do is choose options and stick with them.

Again, timing is everything, and happily, I got to spend last weekend (Valentine’s Day) in Chicago with Andy at the motorcycle show and pizza meet-up with friends.  (As my good friend Mary said, “combining romance and motorcycles – brilliant!”).  Absolutely!  We had so much fun at the motorcycle show that I forgot all about the troubles I was having.  It was worth postponing everything so I could fit that rejuvenating road trip in.  I may have found my next motorcycle, too…

wee-strom

Weeeeee-Strom

Ironically, tomorrow’s surgery (February 23rd, 2015) is one day short of last year’s mastectomy (February 24th, 2014), marking my cancer-free-versary and, with it, a lot of emotion and difficult memories.  It took a year to (not quite fully) recover from the pain of the mastectomy, suffering the side effects of axillary web syndrome, radiation fibrosis, and lymphedema, along with the painful process of filling the tissue expanders to stretch my skin and muscle to make room for an implant.  Then another surgery to exchange the tissue expander for the implant, and now another surgery to undo all that, removing the implant and damaged skin to be left with a flat chest wall.  It’s way too much trouble, really, just to have the appearance of breasts.

So, even though I have a fear of facing another surgery tomorrow, another recovery, and the disappointing setback of losing another “breast” (or foob, as those of us with fake boobs refer to them) I remind myself, as I approach the one year mark, that the important thing is that the cancer is gone.  All the rest of it is just hurdles to clear on the road to recovery.

Cancerversary

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One year ago today, I heard the words, “you have breast cancer”, forever changing my life and challenging my limits over the course of the year. I’ll never forget that day. My time on this planet became more precious that day, and my future became more fragile. Looking back brings a flood of emotion as I recall the experience of that moment in time, now altered by the lens of time and new perspective. I’ll count this year, and every year that passes, as progress towards the goal of so many survivors – stay on the right side of the percentages to become a 5-year survivor, a 10-year survivor, and on and on.

Amongst cancer survivors, this date is known as a Cancerversary. There is some debate regarding which date truly represents a Cancerversary. Some choose the day they were diagnosed. Others choose the day surgery removed the tumor and they became cancer-free. Others count their anniversary as the day they complete all active treatment. For me, there are several dates that will forever stand as milestones on this journey. I mark January 31st as my Cancerversary, the day I learned of my diagnosis, a day I will never forget. I consider February 24th as my Cancer-Free Versary, the day I became cancer free. Other dates also are permanently etched into my mind; the first day of chemo, last day of chemo, end of radiation and active treatment, reconstruction surgery.

The details from that day one year ago are as clear today as they were then. I left the doctor’s office knowing that it was not going to be good news when the doctor called me with the results of the biopsy. Too much about the appointment pointed to bad news. I was there for nearly three hours, getting images and more images; a second look, a third look. The way the doctor shook my hand when he came in the room was the way you shake hands at a funeral, with a deep empathy in his eyes. He held the nurse back from her lunch break so that we could do the biopsy right then and there, rather than scheduling for another day. As we were finishing up, the doctor said, “It doesn’t look good, but I’ve been wrong before”. Not a terribly reassuring statement, I left the appointment knowing what I had already suspected.

I expected the doctor’s call late in the afternoon, so Andy took me out to lunch to pass the time and keep my mind busy with something else. The doctor called earlier than I expected, so I barely heard the words over the din of the lunch crowd. His words confirmed the cancer. I shouldn’t have been shocked, I already knew in my gut what the doctor was going to say, but actually hearing it verbalized was a tough blow. I was thankful that Andy was there to hug me and reassure me, as he would come to do frequently over the course of the year. On the ride home, another call came in, this time from my primary care physician, with her referral to a breast surgeon, who she swore she would go to had it been her diagnosis. And, thus began the wild ride of tests, surgeries, and cancer treatment that would dominate my life for a year.

One year has passed. So much has changed. Reflecting back on why it seemed to be such a busy year, I started counting up Doctor’s appointment, which then lead me to review medicals bills. Then, for some reason, those credit card commercials with the “Priceless” theme popped into my head, (some things, money can’t buy. For everything else…).

Cancer Treatment = One year, 177 appointments, 3 hospitals, 2 surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy
Medical Bills = $646,474 and counting (thank God for good health insurance)
Time lost to sickness, side effects, and recovery = 1 year
Being a Cancer Survivor = Priceless