Nine years ago, almost to the date, I found out I had metastatic breast cancer. When I reminded my sister over the phone the other day, she said, “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say, ‘Happy Anniversary’ or not.”
It is a happy anniversary indeed! Not because I was diagnosed with breast cancer, of course, but because I am living a full life and thriving despite my diagnosis. My journey has changed me and taught me so much – as a patient, as a professional, and as a person.
I Am Not a Statistic
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, naturally one of the first things I did was Google survival statistics. I was disheartened to learn that the average life expectancy was around three years.
I knew if I was going to thrive, I couldn’t allow myself to think of myself as just a statistic. I started treatment refusing to believe that this number applied to me and that I would only live three years – and I credit this mindset as part of the reason I’ve exceeded average survival expectations threefold.
As a survivor myself, I’m able to approach my cancer patient clients with much more understanding and help them put into perspective that they’re not just a number, either. Each person and disease trajectory are unique and can’t be neatly fit into a set of statistics.
I Have Been Freed from Worrying About the Long Term
There’s nothing like a life-threatening diagnosis to help you put time into perspective. While I try not to be morbid, I am realistic about the liklihood that my breast cancer will ultimately take my life someday and that I need to appreciate every moment. It has instilled in me a “seize the day” mentality that has freed me from worrying about the future.
The two biggest priorities in my life are family and travel, and I try to take every opportunity I can to enjoy both. For example, I took a bucket-list cruise trip down the Danube earlier this summer and am going to the beach with my extended family later this week.
My hope is that it doesn’t take terminal illness for others to begin living their lives to the fullest, too. Life is precious, and there’s no time to wait.
Metastatic Cancer Is Misunderstood
When most people think of cancer, they imagine a frail and sickly person missing their hair. They probably also assume the patient is undergoing chemo, surgery, or radiation. But that’s not always what metastatic cancer looks like. For example, my cancer has primarily been managed through regular hormone blocking therapies.
Because I don’t look like I have cancer, I’ve had many people – including healthcare professionals – doubt the validity or seriousness of my disease. “It’s not really cancer, right?” “When did you finish treatment?”
Just because someone doesn’t fit the stereotypical cancer “mold” doesn’t mean they haven’t been struggling with illness, whether visible or not. When it comes to cancer, it’s important to be compassionate and understand that each experience is different.
Metastatic Cancer Treatment Is Lifelong
Another false assumption that many people have about cancer is this idea that there’s an endpoint. You’re diagnosed with cancer, you get treatment, and then you’re cured.
But that’s not the case for those of us with metastatic cancers. While there may be small breaks from treatment when things are stable, we will never be done with treatment completely – that is, unless we choose to end therapy and let the disease take its course.
Luckily, cancer treatment is getting better by the year. Many cancer patients are now able to take advantage of targeted therapies (like my hormone treatments) to live relatively normal lives between therapies. Most metastatic cancer patients can avoid surgery as well, since cancer has already spread and a localized cure is no longer an option.
Cancer Is Not the Worst Thing That’s Happened to Me
Having cancer was not in my plans, but it has taken me places I never could have expected. Ultimately, I’m grateful for my journey and how it’s influenced where I am today.
I never would have become a patient advocate if it weren’t for my cancer diagnosis. My own struggles with illness have instilled in me a passion to help other patients and a deep empathy for their experiences. I am truly honored to be able to help those struggling with cancer or other diseases ease their burden just a bit and to have met so many inspiring and wonderful people.
Here's to many more years of living with cancer and all the lessons it has yet to teach me.
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