When you think of cancer, what do you see? What images pop into your mind? What is your immediate reaction to the word cancer?
All kinds of things have tainted our thoughts on cancer. What it looks like. How survivable it is. What treatment is like.
In movies and TV shows, a cancer patient is typically someone frail and gray. Weak. Clinging to life. Saying goodbye. Chemotherapy is depicted as a brutal, almost intolerable treatment where you’re continuously bed ridden, throwing up, and too weak to do anything. We see fictitious characters “giving up treatment” because it’s too hard. This is what I believed cancer was all about.
I’m here to tell you – don’t believe the B.S.!
Don’t believe what people who write shows and films for entertainment (but have never undergone cancer treatment) want to depict – purely for dramatic effect.
When you get a diagnosis – yes, it’s incredibly scary. I know, I’ve been there. It’s hands-down the hardest day of your life. But part of the reason it’s such a punch to the gut is all of the information we’ve been fed about cancer and cancer treatment.
Yes, a diagnosis is hard. Yes, cancer medications and protocol can be difficult to handle, especially for months on end. But I know people refuse treatment because of what they think it’s like. Many cancers are now highly survivable, but some are saying “no” to something that can greatly improve their chances of living in most cases, purely based on preconceived thoughts about treatment. It breaks my heart.
Cancer treatment can be tough, but it's nothing compared to the physical pain from slowly passing away from cancer. I've witnessed it, and it's a terrible way to spend your final time on earth. I wish more people understood that cancer treatment IS tolerable, and that NOT doing treatment can have a result that is unimaginably rough.
I get why people are afraid. The word “cancer” made me want to run for the hills. I’m someone who didn’t even like taking over the counter pain medication before my diagnosis. But when I had a life-or-death decision to make – I chose to fight. I chose to believe that I’ve done hard things, and I could do this. I had so much to live for. And let me tell you – I was pretty surprised at how my cancer treatment went in real-life.
Let me start by saying I had one of the hardest protocols out there. My cocktail was dose-dense (3 weeks of drugs in 2 weeks) Adriamycin and Cytoxan, also known as AC / The Red Devil for its toxicity and color, plus weekly Taxol infusions. Arguably some of the toughest chemotherapy drugs for 6 months, and another 8 months of high dose Xeolda (oral chemo). That’s about a year and a half of chemo. I also had 32 radiation sessions. Multiple surgeries. And 2 years of intravenous immunotherapy. Yep – that’s 3 years of intense treatment. Was it a walk in the park? Heck no. Was it livable? Yes. Let me tell you how I got through it.
Now everyone is different, but I was actually surprised at how well my body tolerated it. I went in for my infusion on Tuesdays, went home and to bed, and knew the next day I wouldn’t feel great. That’s pretty much what happened. The day after my infusion was the hardest, and it gradually got better over a couple days, so that by the weekend I felt like “myself.”
Even with the hardest chemo drugs out there – I never threw up.
Repeat: I did 16 IV chemo infusions and 8 months of oral chemo and I never threw up.
I still drove my kids to school. I saw friends and family. I tried to keep as much normalcy as I could during this time. Was I tired a lot? Yes. Did I lose my appetite? Yes. Was I over the whole thing after a few months? Yes. But you’d be shocked at how quickly you can adapt to a new normal – especially when your goal is living. I chose to see chemotherapy, surgery and radiation as saving my life, not as treatments designed to make me feel bad.
I became deeply committed to learning what I could do to make treatment more tolerable. I was given very little medical guidance, so I relied on Shenell and other survivors to improve my chances of success and finishing my treatment plan. Making cancer treatment more tolerable was shockingly simple!
I did things that kept the most common pitfalls at bay so I could stay on track. Simple things like swishing with coconut oil to protect my mouth during chemo. I never got a single mouth sore! I drank teas that helped me (mostly) avoid painful constipation and GI issues that make others want to quit. I did tinctures to help my nausea that worked better than prescription meds (did I mention I never threw up?). I stayed super-hydrated and ate clean food to give my body the best possible chance to fight. I prioritized sleep, taking a nap with my 5 year old everyday. I started talking to a cancer therapist. I started saying “no” to things that weren’t going to help my recovery. I did all I could and never wavered in my goal of living – and I never stopped learning or trying new things. Stay committed!
So many people I saw over the course of 3 long years would tell me (in a surprised voice): “Wow… you look great” or “I can’t believe you’re here!” at school functions or just out and about. People were genuinely shocked that I could go on walks, stay involved with my kids – even in the height of my treatment. Yes, I looked different and felt different, but I was getting through it. I wasn’t wasting away alone at home: I was living my life.
My hair started growing back, my hundreds of appointments lessened, my energy level shot up and I got back to a healthy weight. Months and years came and went, but I’m here and I’m thriving. I could have been too scared to start treatment. I could have given up at my first stumble. But I didn’t. Why? Because it is tolerable, it is lifesaving, and millions have proven: we can do this.
I love being someone who can help change the face of cancer. I’m not a sickly person. I am a woman, a mother, a wife and friend who is strong and thriving. I’m a survivor. Not a survivor of chemo or surgery or radiation: I am a survivor of cancer. That’s where we need to collectively stay focused: not the uncomfortable means of eradicating cancer from our bodies, simply eradicating cancer from our bodies.
The Do Cancer Survivor Stories are destigmatizing cancer by sharing what living with and through cancer is actually like. We want to give hope to all with cancer that the hardest chapter of their life can transform how others see and understand cancer. What a diagnosis means. What a cancer patient looks like. What we’re capable of. How treatment can be more tolerable with the right perspective and tips. How people just like you have made it from patient to long-term survivor. Not only is making it through treatment possible - it’s the reality for millions of us a year. And we’d do it all over again.
Don’t believe the hype. Let’s change the face of cancer together.