People tell me that I must be so strong to be able to cope with the ongoing ramifications of having cancer. But I don’t think I’m that strong. I’ve just made a decision to get up every morning and have the best possible day I can have.
My battle with breast cancer began 10 years ago, but the aftereffects of the disease and the treatment will be with me for the rest of my life. As a professional woman who has had several diverse careers, including one as a corporate controller and another as an art teacher, I’m driven to want to succeed in life. But since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2002, I’ve not only been unable to continue working, even doing the simplest tasks like cooking or cleaning leave me exhausted.
Cumulative Effect of Treatment
Now I wonder, if I had been immediately diagnosed when I first felt a huge lump in my right breast, whether some of these issues could have been avoided. An earlier mammogram in that same breast had shown a cluster of microcalcifications, which was diagnosed as stage I ductal carcinoma in situ and required two lumpectomies to remove. Though they performed sonograms when I felt the new mass, the doctors in California said it was nothing to worry about.
It wasn’t until I moved from California to Missouri in the spring of 2003 and found a new medical team that a biopsy of the tumor in my right breast was taken. It was found to be a stage IIIC HER2-positive invasive ductal carcinoma. Even with therapy, which included a bilateral mastectomy, 8 rounds of doxorubicin and docetaxel, and 38 rounds of radiation therapy, my oncology team said that my life expectancy was between 2 and 3 years.
Fortunately, maintenance therapy with anastrozole has helped me beat those odds, but the cumulative effect of my treatment has left the quality of my life permanently altered. The combination of 15 surgeries—to repair a crater on my right side (the result of the radiation therapy) and for breast reconstruction—plus the chemotherapy has left me so fatigued and cognitively impaired that I’ve had to go on disability.
Not being able to perform two activities, like cooking and cleaning, in the same day sounds like a minor inconvenience, but the effect is crushing to someone who is used to an active and productive lifestyle. Plus, I constantly live with the fear that my cancer will come back.
What has helped me work through that fear and overcome a sense of isolation I’ve felt since my diagnosis is my involvement with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network (csn.cancer.org). Just knowing that I can go online any time of the day or night and speak to other cancer survivors and vent about my problems or joke with them has saved my life. I’ve also gone back to my artistic roots and have taken up modular origami, which has been therapeutic and helped lift my depression.
People tell me that I must be so strong to be able to cope with the ongoing ramifications of having cancer. But I don’t think I’m that strong. I’ve just made a decision to get up every morning and have the best possible day I can have. ■
Sherry Cohen lives in Cedar Hill, Missouri.