By Andrea Whittle
It’s been five years since I was told “you have cancer.” Now is the year I get to reflect on how far I have come; five years is a big benchmark for us cancer survivors. For many, it means they clear a lower chance of recurrence; for others, it is a reminder of how hard you have been fighting to make it to this day.
For me, it is a little of both. I do not feel fully “out of the woods” yet. I still have that fear lingering close by that one day I will hear those words again. Between my family’s history and taking a medication for the last five years to “hopefully” keep my recurrence away, the thoughts linger.
In a few months, I will see my oncologist again for this five year follow up on this medication. He can either say, “You can stop taking it,” or “Let’s keep it going another five years.” Either answer isn’t reassuring. It still feels like my health is in limbo, and that fear is always lurking.
When I look back over the last five years, each year had its own theme and milestone.
FIGHT. Did not stop fighting. Whatever the doctor said I needed to do to live, I did! A 9.5-hour surgery of a double mastectomy with DIEP reconstruction almost lost me three times, five months of chemo, 10 months Herceptin, 28 days radiation, ovaries removed. The physical pain was incredible from surgeries, side effects, and shingles. I had to be mentally numb to everything other than surviving each hour of each day.
ANGER. I was mad when the mental numbness cleared up. Why me?! I wanted answers, but there where none — just the luck of the draw. I was in heart failure now from the Herceptin. I was finally cleared to start living again without the weekly doctor visits, but I was held back by my heart.
I would push myself to be physically active, trying hard to get my figure back. I was tired of being in recovery mode, but I would frequently hurt myself and that would set me back to square one again. I saw everyone else’s life growing and mine was still, still try to survive.
SADNESS. It’s been three years of my life standing still and no one is left in it except my son and me. I realized my best friends really did not have my back, my 15-year relationship was over, my extended family was not around. The only support I had left did not live in the city. Fuck is it lonely.
The pain’s not just physical anymore; it’s now mental and very isolating. I never had suicidal thoughts until this year. Looking back at what I thought my life would have been like as a young adult to what it actually was and the mountains I still had to climb created a very dark year.
MINDFULNESS. I had to find the peace within myself. I had to accept what happened and turn it into strength. It took a whole year of meditating as close to daily as possible (I used the daily Calm app). I did every seven-day challenge to reprogram my brain to be calm, forgive, and find hope. I set new goals, mapped out the goal, achieved that goal. I found what truly makes me happy. Practiced self-care. This was a year of rebirth. I am not who I was on November 3, 2015; I will never be that girl again. I must accept who I am now.
LOVE. By this year I am mentally and physically stronger and continuing to grow, but I need to love myself because I did not. I was still angry that my body let me down and I did not like the constant reminder when I looked in the mirror. I give a lot of love to others, but the one who needed it the most was me.
This year I have focused on loving myself for all the new things I can do and all of my accomplishments, and — most importantly — for my beautiful body. I got two college diplomas and started a new career all on my own while raising my son as a full-time single mother. I am finally off welfare and saving money again for my financial goals that I have set. I can now look in the mirror and smile to my reflection, I remind myself how fucking strong I am, and I can get through anything life sets in front of me.
Five years later there is sunlight at the end of the storm. There are still cloudy days, but I can now weather through them. I can now cope with my side effects and not let them hold me back.
I met YACC in year two. I took the plunge and listened to everything it taught me and tried it because what else was I to do!? Life could not be any worse than it was! Through my experiences with YACC, I have grown to be the person I wanted to be before I found out I had cancer.
The last five years have been the most challenging, but the common theme is to never give up and keep fighting. It does get easier. It’s never perfect, but I have hope again — to say I have hope is something I couldn’t say until year five.
We are all different in our journeys; everyone’s story will be different. Back in year one, two, and three, I could not fathom the thought of what my life is now and how truly happy I am in it. We all move at our own pace and accepting that is the first step.