I know I’ll never be the same person I was before my cancer diagnosis. I’m not the same physically or emotionally, and in some ways, the changes have been positive.— Dana Stewart
Just 32 when I first felt a lump in the top of my left breast, I never expected it to be cancer or my life would irrevocably change in that instant. With no history of breast cancer in my family, I initially shook off any thoughts that I could have a serious disease and instead consoled myself with the thought that many women my age have benign fibrocystic breasts. I did, however, make a mental note to mention the lump to my gynecologist at my next regular appointment. Although my doctor sounded reassuring after she examined me, she also suggested I have a mammogram and ultrasound just to be sure the lump she was feeling was benign.
When both tests came back inconclusive for cancer, my doctor referred me to a breast surgeon for a tissue biopsy. Although that test also came back negative for cancer, it did show that the lesion contained some abnormal cells. My surgeon recommended I have an excisional biopsy to remove the entire mass and some surrounding tissue, even though, he assured me, he didn’t suspect cancer. I thought I was in the clear. I wasn’t. The pathology report showed that I had stage 1 estrogen receptor–positive invasive carcinoma.
Taking No Chances
Because the tumor was small and contained, I was given the option of having a lumpectomy or a total mastectomy. Despite being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and testing negative for the BRCA1 mutation, I decided on a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. I’m a careful person and didn’t want to have any regrets later that I didn’t do everything I could to remain healthy and cancer-free. I wanted to put cancer behind me, but that’s been impossible. Even though I’ve remained cancer-free for 7 years, the fear of having cancer has never left me and has become a big part of my survivorship.
Feeling Secure in the Cancer Cocoon
After my surgery, I had four rounds of docetaxel and cyclophosphamide. I also had reconstructive breast surgery, so I could start feeling normal again. During that time, I was on autopilot and did everything my oncologist told me to do. I read the pamphlets he gave me to prepare for the physical and emotional issues I would likely encounter and made a list of all my medical appointments to be sure never to miss one. I was in a cancer cocoon and felt secure knowing my oncologist was keeping careful watch on my progress.
It wasn’t until my last day of chemotherapy—a day that should have been filled with relief and happiness—that the nearly paralyzing fear of having cancer set in and has dissipated only slightly since then.
Some survivors are able to put cancer behind them, but it’s been a struggle for me to move forward with my life. Until recently, I wouldn’t make plans beyond a few months, certain that I wouldn’t see the next year. I was losing control and knew that if something didn’t change, the fear would become so overwhelming I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
The person I trusted the most during this time was my oncologist. I would see him every few months for follow-up visits, and he could see I was struggling emotionally. Fortunately, he took the time to talk with me about my anxieties and suggested I see a psychotherapist. I’ve been in therapy now for 2 years, and the veil of fear is starting to lift, although its presence is always hovering nearby.
After my diagnosis, even though I had a good prognosis, I wasn’t sure I’d see the age of 40. Now, instead of planning my life in increments of a few months, I allow myself the luxury of thinking a few years ahead.
What’s helped me, too, is learning that I’m not alone in my fear. I’ve become an active blogger in cancer survivorship issues and launched a website for survivors and caregivers in need of after-cancer resources. The experience of helping other cancer survivors and their caregivers has been rewarding and makes me feel less alone in my journey.
Saying ‘Yes’ to Life
Despite the progress I’m making, I know I’ll never be the same person I was before my cancer diagnosis. I’m not the same physically or emotionally, and in some ways, the changes have been positive. Once fiercely driven to get ahead in my career, now I’m content to go slower and take care of the other areas of my life that need nourishing.
I’m looking forward to doing more travel and spending time with friends and family. And I never say “no” to any new opportunity or put off doing something I want to do thinking there’s always next year.
Although I now have better control over my fear of cancer, I’m still too afraid to be complacent. I know that the only future I can be sure of is the one I’m living in today. ■
Ms. Stewart lives in Chicago and is the founder of The Dragonfly Angel Society (dragonflyangelsociety.com), a nonprofit cancer survivorship resource website.