September 18, 2013, marked the one-year mark from my diagnosis.
While being told you have cancer isn't something to celebrate, it marks a significant change in our lives worth recognizing.
If you look at the glass as half full, it is a celebration that I found this lump before it spread further than it had. It is a celebration that my doctor didn't assume it was nothing. It is a celebration of the amazing friends and family who have helped us throughout the past year.
I really do feel that the glass is half full in the way that I described. I didn't get a choice about getting this disease — that I cannot change. But the blessings that have happened along the way are pretty awesome to think about.
I'm about two-thirds done with my treatment, with the hardest part behind me. When they told me it would be about a year and a half before I was done, not only did I not believe it would take that long, but I also felt like that was an eternity away.
I've expressed it before, but it is hard for me to not have a date that I will be declared cancer-free. When do I refer to myself as a cancer survivor vs. having cancer? Technically, I became a survivor after my surgeries when they removed the cancer. Chemo and radiation are my insurance policy against recurrence, but not something that got rid of the cancer. That said, it is really weird to think of yourself as a survivor while you fight like a dog to make it through chemo, radiation and more surgeries.
You are still fighting.
If you aren't fighting cancer, what are you fighting?
Maybe that is just it. I'll always be fighting cancer. I'll always be looking over my shoulder to see if it is sneaking up on me.
I'll always be afraid when I get my annual CT scans. I'll always be afraid that a persistent headache means the cancer is back … and in my brain.
I'm really not sure I'll ever be at ease.
As I write that, I feel like such a drama queen. Drama is not my normal state of being. And any time I feel dramatic feelings, I can usually check myself and think of the most logical approach to a situation.
The hard part is there is a little devil on my shoulder that makes me afraid of what might happen. The little angel usually has him bound and gagged, but sometimes he breaks free and reminds me of what I work really hard to not think about:
I could have and still could die from this.
It sounds like drama, especially if you live in a world where you don't know many people who have breast cancer. But, if you live in my new world, you realize just how awful and deadly this disease is. You realize just how many women with moms, sisters, husbands and children — lives full of amazing people who love them so much — die. Cancer sneaks up on them, and it stabs them in the back when they weren't expecting it. Beautiful women with life stories that most people never hear because they only hear of these women as a number when they read the American Cancer Society's statistic that says, “In 2011, approximately 39,520 women are expected to die from breast cancer.”
Those are real women. Just like me. And, I bet that they felt really positive and encouraged as they went through chemo and radiation the first time — the fight was almost over. I bet most of them never expected to have to go through chemo a second or third time. I mean, who walks into a cancer fight thinking they are going to lose, right?
So that devil on my shoulder asks me …
“What makes me so different from any of those women? Why will my outcome be different?”
And I see things like the American Cancer Society stats that say the survival rate for someone with regional disease is 84 percent. Larger tumor size is also associated with decreased survival. For example, 5-year survival is 63 percent for tumors greater than 5.0 cm. The 5-year survival rate is 84 percent for women diagnosed before the age of 40.
In the middle of bad statistics
I technically have regional disease. My tumor was 5.2 cm. I'm below the age of 40.
I'm right in the middle of the bad part of those statistics.
Since drama is not my comfortable state, I feel really dumb being there. Go sit in a cancer hospital for a little while. It will take you about two minutes to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I know that firsthand. I'm so very aware that there are so many people who are fighting a harder fight than I am. For instance, my aching radiated breast was really painful as we walked to appointments at M.D. Anderson a couple of weeks ago, but it was nothing compared to the young man sitting next to me in the lab. He had lost his leg.
That makes me feel even more dumb for being dramatic. Those people would love to be in my seat — only having to deal with 16 weeks of chemo and seven weeks of radiation compared to their two or three years of fighting. Who am I to complain?
So, it is a hard place to be, because I feel so lucky and unlucky all at the same time. I feel so blessed, but leery about feeling too blessed.
I think that the further I get down this road, the easier it will be for my angel to keep the devil in his place. I'll always wonder if the cancer is sneaking up behind me, but the logical (angel) side reminds me that I have given my body quite a beating this year in an effort to protect myself from it. I've done my best. The odds are in my favor.
The logical (angel) side reminds me that even though those statistics I mentioned above aren't fantastic (large, hard-to-detect tumors with escalating chance of recurrence), I had very little lymph node involvement and it appears not to have spread. Plus, I have mostly lobular cancer while most younger women have ductal, which tends to be more aggressive. My prognosis is good, all things considered.
The logical (angel) side tells me that chances are high that this cancer is gone forever. It also tells me that if I play out the “what-ifs,” and IF it comes back, this past year has proved that I have a support system that cannot be rivaled.
That, alone, gives me peace.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Today's story is from a local cancer patient's blog written Sept. 18, with excerpts from throughout the year. Jenny Herzberger is married to Alan Herzberger, NewsOK's digital managing editor. Read her blog at TheHerzyJourney.com.