10 Years a Survivor

I recently reached my ten year milestone as a stage 3A triple-negative breast cancer survivor. When I think back to how the oncologist gave me "three years at best WITH treatment", I am beyond grateful to experience this moment.

Battling cancer has changed my outlook on life forever. While overall I know it made me a better person,it also revealed some painful truths about cancer and life in general. Everyone who battles cancer wants to win but sadly many will not. Survivor guilt is very real and is a heavy burden to bear. Attending a funeral of a fallen sister is one of the darkest moments in my life. I've attended far too many of them.

I'd like to think that all the suffering and sadness has not been in vain. I've reflected long and hard on what I have learned since 2007 and came up with a list of ten things breast cancer taught me in ten years. I hope it is useful to anyone battling the disease or finding themselves in a dark place.

1) You will and can get through this. Stop and think back to a time where you felt hopeless. You probably didn't think you would get through it but you did. There were countless times I looked in the mirror during chemotherapy and instead of crying I told myself "Your hair will grow back. One day this will all be a memory." And it's 2017 and it's a memory and a testimony now. Don't give up.

2) Don't waste precious time. I never know when the other shoe will fall so I embrace the gift of time. Nothing like being fully in the moment so choose how you spend your time wisely. Are you doing things today that your future self will thank you for? Are your relationships fruitful or draining? Are you just spinning your wheels or going places?

3) Self care is critical. No one can take better care of you than YOU. Never apologize for taking steps to ensure that you are always at your best. Whether it's pampering or simple rest, you must put your own well being first.

4) Never stop showing gratitude. Gratitude is a lifestyle. Let people know that you appreciate them. Be grateful for the small things because one day you will realize that the small things in life were really the big picture.

5) Exercise. That one is pretty simple! Just do it!

6) The gift of goodbye. Saying goodbye is always difficult but learn to realize the power of goodbye. Losing a dear friend to death means that they are no longer sick and suffering. They are at peace now and have transitioned on to the next phase. While we selfishly want them here in the physical sense, the gift is in the memories and the legacy. When we say goodbye to tainted relationships, we rid ourselves of wasted time and energies.

7) Find joy in each day. Joy doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't even have to incur costs. Find something you truly enjoy like cooking, gardening, walking in a park, watching your favorite tv show, etc. It is up to you to craft your day. Make sure your agenda includes something that makes you happy.

8) Don't be afraid to do things alone. Before breast cancer, I always thought I needed company to do things and would miss out on things because I couldn't find a date. I have attended museum exhibits and concerts alone and you know what? I had a blast! I met people and a few strangers who are now friends. Get out there and meet people! Don't miss out on fun opportunities because you lack a sidekick.

9) Don't put off today what you think you can do tomorrow. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. I almost put off a weekend hospital visit to a special young woman on Sunday under the assumption I could visit the following weekend. She passed away that Thursday. Don't procrastinate spending time with people you care about. You will deeply regret it if you miss that opportunity. Take the time when friends come into town to let them know you care and to make a few new memories!

10) Find the purpose in the journey. Breast cancer at 35. Breast cancer as a newlywed. Asthma, depression, anxiety, chronic sinusitis, repeated knee surgeries AND breast cancer? Do I have illnesses? YES. Do I let them define me? NO. On days that I feel good, I maximize the hell out of that day. I embrace every single hour. On days where I am sick, I still get down but I allow myself time to heal and recover and start planning for  the well days again. I refuse to be defined by a disease.

A lot has changed since 2007. My family has experienced some pretty substantial changes and milestones. I've had some setbacks and obstacles but I've had more accomplishments and successes as a result of choices and positive thinking. I sure hope to reach my 20 year remission milestone but for now, I'll focus on the 11th. One day and one beautiful moment at a time.


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