21 Aug You Never Know…
I am 52 years old and was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2017 – one week after my birthday, and one week after leaving my job to pursue a new career in real estate.
During these early deepest and darkest moments of despair, it felt like my cancer diagnosis was a cruel twist of fate − “I have cancer, I could die, I left my job and have no income, no health benefits or disability income.” My well-intentioned plans to finish my real estate course also fell to the back burner. I was second-guessing all my decisions and intentions, and never felt so alone or afraid. I was angry. This was NOT how things were supposed to unfold at this point in my life – at least that is what I first thought.
My life, and my family’s lives were turned upside down that fateful Spring. I hated impacting everyone’s lives in such a frightening way. My mother outwardly screamed in pain when I told her the news; my husband cried in private and for hours on end, he immersed himself in researching cancer and alternative treatments. My daughter Sarah appeared emotionally immobilized and only wanted the facts. Her science intellect and logical reasoning took over to help her cope and guide her through this unnerving journey.
Sarah is my only biological child, and we have always been extremely close. She graduated from the University of Alberta this Spring following my diagnosis. Although Sarah tried hard to mask her feelings, her spirits were dampened during convocation. She was still absorbing a new reality that her mother has breast cancer, and she was also anxiously awaiting much anticipated news on her acceptance into Vet School in Calgary for fall study. I learned later, that she desperately wanted to achieve this milestone, not just for her future, but mostly as a gift of hope for me.
As I watched her cross the stage at the U of A to accept her degree, I was filled with such pride and raw emotion. I was grateful to be at this ceremony, and secretly wondered if it would be the last. “How could I do this to her,” I unforgivingly questioned myself. “She has her whole life ahead of her, and I NEED to be here for her.” I could not imagine missing out on her life – becoming veterinarian, getting married, having children!
I am the first person in our family to get a cancer diagnosis, so we all had so much learning ahead of us. And, I soon realized that the more I learned, there was still so much more I didn’t know, and needed to learn.
I was in shock for several weeks and there were so many unknown questions. Did the cancer spread? Does this mean I am going to die? Would I have to go through chemotherapy and radiation? How long do I have? Why did this happen? Did I cause this? What tests do I need? When? What do I do? It took me almost a month before I finally had the ‘big cry’! The tears were steeped in shock, anger, disbelief, fear, sadness and realizing my great vulnerabilities. I was not ready to give up!
Two days before my surgery, I learned that Sarah was offered a seat in Vet School! “There is a God and he heard my prayers,” I celebrated! The good news carried me through my operation. I had a full mastectomy of my left breast and am still recovering. I found an amazing Naturopath doctor in Edmonton who helped me build my immune system leading up to and following surgery.
At this clinic, I met many other people who were living with a cancer diagnosis. They proved to be my greatest teachers and influencers thus far! Each person generously shared information, resources, books, videos, websites, stories, knowledge, their struggles … but most of all, role modelled hope, positivity, kindness, empathy and courage. I was the “newbie” cancer patient, and it was so heart-warming to be surrounded with people who generously offered me the gifts I genuinely needed to move forward with courage and confidence. “You got this,” will always have great meaning in my life.
Amazingly, the cancer did not spread to my lymph nodes, nor metastasize to other areas of my body. Still, the pathology reports identified my tumor as having aggressive tendencies (Grade 3), and was considered large (3 cm). Against my oncologist’s recommendations, I turned down chemotherapy. The statistics presented to me did not appear to offer me much benefit from chemotherapy in terms of preventing breast cancer from re-occurring over the next 15 years. But, the grim reality is that in the small chance it should come back, I would be considered Stage IV, and there would be limited treatment options available to me. Yet, the ‘risk vs benefit’ formula was enough for me to shut the door on chemotherapy. And, in all honesty, it scared me beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I knew I had to take responsibility for getting better and I needed to be the champion of my destiny in my own way.
Following hundreds of hours of research, engaging in conversations with medical professionals and other patients, reading books, and trying to debunk all the internet ‘miracle treatments and promises,’ I pursued a pathway of alternative/integrative medicine. It seemed to be the lowest risk option with the best chance of long-term success.
I went outside of the country eight weeks following my surgery and underwent immunotherapy – a type of treatment that harnesses and enhances the innate powers of the immune system to fight cancer. To complement this treatment, I also drastically changed my diet, added proper nutrition supplementation, started moving, and introduced myself to new practices of emotional self-care. I finally found peace once I made the incredibly difficult decisions about my course of treatments.
What I have learned so far is that cancer is a very personal journey, and you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have!