Fourteen Years of Self-Discovery After Cancer
Fourteen years ago, one could describe my life as “perfect”. I was married to a nice guy, we had good health, made a good living together, traveled often, and had great friends.
In 2006, we wanted to start a family. I had a miscarriage in March of that year, and in September I received the terrible news of my breast cancer diagnosis.
There isn’t any required breast cancer screening for women under the age of 40 in the United States. I was not one to do self-examinations and I still don’t; but for some strange reason, I found the lump myself.
I was 31 when I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I did not know anything about cancer, at least anything good. I was not prepared to be sick. I was not ready to give up. I wanted to fight, but at that moment I did not think it was slightly conceivable to win any battle. I was already defeated because I did not know anything. I was blind.
Not knowing is perhaps your biggest enemy.
I think about the day when I first found out about my diagnosis and the feelings of distress, panic, anxiety, and shock immediately come back. I realized that the wrong group of doctors was handling my case, and contacted a good friend who worked at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. He pointed me in the right direction and recommended an Oncology surgeon right there at MGH.
It was 6:00 PM on a Friday when I got to the hospital. All the staff was gone, but my surgeon was waiting for me. I spent about an hour with her and learned a lot about breast cancer: What it is, where it is located, how it progresses, etc.
She helped me understand everything with drawings and gave the most sincere and hopeful words. I loved her. I left the hospital feeling a tad better. I can’t say that I was super positive or optimistic, but at least I understood my disease and my options. I was educated.
The following week, I was scheduled to get an MRI to know the exact location of the tumor. After that, I had a date for surgery. My doctor successfully removed the tumor and 19 lymph nodes.
That was the easy part, then the hard work began.
After slightly recovering from surgery, I met with an oncologist – also at MGH. We discussed what my treatment was going to be like for the next 6 years. This included chemotherapy, Herceptin, radiation therapy, and 5 years on a drug called Tamoxifen.
If you are at your prime for childbearing, and your treatment includes chemotherapy and Tamoxifen, then you should/must see a fertility doctor before starting chemotherapy.
I met with a fertility doctor who had nothing to do with my treatment. The doctor gave me the spiel about the hypothetical opportunity to become a mom through in vitro fertilization… In six years!
No, thank you.
How could I think about being a mom when my own life was at stake?
At that time, it was my personal decision to not pursue fertility treatments and to start chemotherapy ASAP. Being a mom, a healthy one, could wait.
I started chemotherapy as planned on a Monday morning. I showed up bright and early to my first treatment. At MGH a nurse is appointed to you and will be your chaperone throughout your treatment. The drill is pretty much the same every time – weight check, blood work, then treatment.
I guess a dreaded part of going through chemotherapy for many women is losing their hair. It is pretty easy to understand why. Hair is a sign of femininity. Losing your hair makes you look vulnerable and easy to label as someone who is sick.
Buying a wig to regain what you’ve lost is not a simple, straightforward solution – it’s not the same as the real thing. I got fitted for a synthetic wig, which I only wore once. Instead, I wore scarves, which I found to be very easy and versatile. I had a few regular scarves that I just tied around my head, but my personal favorite was one that I could tie on top.
I lost my hair a few days after my second treatment. Knowing I would lose it, I decided to cut it off beforehand. I thought it would make seeing it fall out less challenging.
Honestly, losing my hair did not faze me. I was more concerned about reaching a chemically induced menopause at 32.
My periods did stop after my second treatment. My doctors were not sure if they were ever going to come back. For the first time in my life, I wanted to get my period. I started to despair about the idea of ever having a biological family.
Getting breast cancer at 31 brought my world to a crashing halt and forced me to reevaluate my husband, my job, my life, and what I wanted out of it.
I understood that I deserved to be with someone who shared my joie de vivre, my craziness, my laughter, and my essence. I also learned that life is too short and that my wish was to share, in an unconditional way, a life project with a person with whom I could be myself – a partner, not a boss.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what went wrong in my marriage and if divorcing was inevitable, or if breast cancer had something to do with it. Interestingly enough, I think going through that ordeal made me understand that we were not right for each other. Breast cancer brought us together and distanced us at the same time.
My treatment lasted a year and a half, and that’s when we were the strongest as a couple. After treatment, I realized that we did not see life the same way. I wanted to find a way to make us strong as a couple again. I knew he wanted a family, but starting a biological one was not going to be an option for a while.
It was a very difficult time and a challenging situation, but probably the most convincing thing for me was to think: “I didn’t survive to have an existence where I don’t feel like I am living at all.” It took me two years to make a final decision about my marriage, but today I have no regrets about it.
After my divorce in 2010, I promised myself that I would always think about myself first. This is how my pursuit of happiness began. Unfortunately, I ran into situations where I didn’t make the best decisions.
I was meeting new people, but not the type of men I wanted to be with long-term. Even though I was very busy at work, that was not enough distraction to keep my mind occupied. Most importantly, I felt very lonely and loneliness can be your worst counselor at times.
I was seeing someone for about 2 years and one day I found out I was pregnant. Having gratitude for not feeling lonely and being with someone, made me think I was happy enough and in love with him. All of that and the pregnancy hormones made me believe that we could play house together.
And once again, I was wrong.
Today, fourteen years later, I don’t have my life figured out by any means; but all of this self-discovery led me to become a mom, the most rewarding experience of my life. I did go through a bad time, but I became a mom at the ‘right’ time. My six-year-old son has brought so much joy to my life and has given me the most important reason to live.
He is the engine that keeps me alive. Thanks to him, I have a valid justification to strive for better things, avoid harmful situations, stay fit and live a healthy lifestyle.
I never thought about writing about my personal experience with breast cancer, but I thought that my story could raise awareness and help other young women going through the same thing I went through in 2006.
This is how “Borrongonga” – my personal blog – was born about 5 years ago, after a casual conversation during lunch with a friend. It is a blog that narrates my experience going through breast cancer, my recovery, my divorce, and becoming a mom 8 years after cancer.
Since I moved back to Colombia, after living in the United States for 15 years, writing became a cathartic exercise for me. Now I make it a habit to write about valuable life lessons, survivorship, motherhood, relationships, marriage, love, and the life I dream of.
2018 was a wonderful year for me because I gained closure to a lot of chapters in my life. I started working again. I finally forgave myself for my past decisions. I healed. I established an order of priorities in my life, and I accepted my single mom status.
Even though I haven’t been in a relationship for a while, I feel I’ve healed. I am ready to be in one with a person who truly loves and values me and, most importantly, respects who I am.
I am at my best moment as a woman, because I’ve learned to love myself, and am capable of having better control of my feelings and emotions. Even though I am still working on finding that almost perfect balance – where I am in full control of my decisions in a rational and assertive way; I would not want to lose my essence – a combination of a woman with a modern front and an inner chaste persona, who doesn’t want to forget about herself.
Photo courtesy of author.