Everyone understands and lives their "new normal" in different ways. Fear of recurrence is a completely normal feeling experienced with survivorship. Read how one cancer survivor reached and defined her own cancer anniversaries and milestones below.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer I remember hearing about people celebrating their 5-year cancer anniversaries. That seemed to be the magic number that worked for others. Once I was diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer in July 2010, I realized every day seemed like I was reaching a magic number. After doing my research about Triple Negative for the first weeks after my diagnosis, my reality started to set in. The descriptions of this type of breast cancer (that only 10-20% of women are diagnosed with), repeated the same words over and over again - "aggressive" and "deadly". I wasn't even considering a 5-year cancer-free anniversary, I just prayed every day that I would make it to one year post diagnosis.
My oncologist was honest with me from the beginning; he said that for me, the 2-year and 3-year marks were very crucial, let alone the 5-year mark. So after finishing eight chemotherapy treatments in four months, losing my hair and feeling fatigue like I never could have imagined, my survivorship began.
To help my chances of making it to any future cancer free milestones, I drastically changed my lifestyle. I became a vegetarian and started running on a regular basis. I resigned from a head coaching position to help alleviate stress. Even if my cancer were to return, I wanted to know in my heart that I had done everything in my power to keep it away. Making and maintaining these changes gave me focus and a purpose in my life. My countdown to 2, and then 3 years cancer free still had a share of obstacles along the way. My initial reconstruction surgery went well for nine days. On the 10th day I woke up in excruciating pain with my chest swollen several inches. In less than 2 hours I was in emergency surgery to repair a blood vessel that had "sprung a leak". I lost 16 ounces of blood and was physically and emotionally drained. The following year I had two more reconstruction surgeries, hip surgery, and lost my beloved dog to thyroid cancer. During this stretch I questioned why I was being tested with so many physical and emotional hurdles. But I refused to feel sorry for myself because when I looked at the bigger picture, I was cancer free.
But on July 6, 2015 I officially became a 5-year cancer survivor. I celebrated before, during and after with many bucket list items. I held a house concert for an up-and-coming musician and treated myself to a Caribbean beach vacation. Music and imagining myself walking on a beach helped me through many scary times so including them in my celebrations was only natural. I actually made plans for the future; not constantly fearful that my cancer might return.
However as relieved as I've been, I have also felt a bit lost. I survived to this point- now what? To appreciate the present while not forgetting my past is an internal battle and I strive to find a balance between them. I realize that although my original "new normal" is changing, the lessons I learned from it can guide my future. The key I realize, is to still take care of me, no matter what that looks like. In addition to maintaining my new lifestyle, I will continue to surround myself with good people and activities that I can love and support. The best part is now I feel I have a future to plan. And as long as I can keep planning, I will have focus.
How did you feel when you reached a cancerversary?