Shock is what most people experience at the beginning of a cancer diagnosis, but what do you feel after thinking you’ll get the all-clear from your oncologist after months of treatment and surgery and don’t? For me, it was defeat. This was a new feeling for me. Fear and sadness were still present, but defeat wasn’t something I was prepared to feel or had much experience feeling. Sure, I had felt some defeat when jobs were not granted to me or when we tried to sell a house and it took a year to do so. Those feelings of defeat were nothing like hearing the words: "you didn’t have a complete response to chemo."
I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer 7 months prior to hearing that. As most of you know, it is a very aggressive cancer that responds very well to aggressive treatment (chemo). I did all the steps: 16 rounds of chemo and a double mastectomy. A complete hysterectomy and oophorectomy were also done during this time, since I have the BRCA1 gene mutation. My doctors said that I was “ambitious” to do two surgeries within a month of finishing chemo. My goal was to go full force into 2020 and that meant no chemo, major surgeries, or continuous doctor appointments.
I was determined to have a great beginning to the year 2020 and go full-force into survivorship. My great beginning to the new year included vacations, making meals, having the kids back into a normal routine, and a vision of having a life full of energy! Doing what all the “normal” people do around me!
My 2020 had changed drastically with the news that my 1.6 cm tumor still had 1 cm left after my mastectomy. My doctor recommended 6 months of an oral chemo, Xeloda. Another 6 months of possible chemo side effects. Another 6 months of continuous doctor visits. Another 6 months of not getting my life back to what I thought it would be. My oncologist said I can consider myself “cancer free,” but the joy in hearing those words was clouded. The mere thought of a cancerous cell floating somewhere in my body is terrifying. For the week following the phone call from my doctor I didn’t feel hope. I only felt defeated.
After I met with the oncologist and had a good week to process what “survivorship” would look like for me, I decided to become determined. Resetting your mindset when unfortunate news is given is extremely hard, but it’s vital. For me, becoming determined to get through the oral chemo went from being a horrible situation to being another step to not having a recurrence. Three years ago, oral chemo wasn’t used when residual cancer was found after treatments. I’m lucky to have a treatment option that increases my survival rate.
Many people that have cancer decide to “not sweat the small stuff.” I, too, had that perspective, but it became clearer that I have to live that way even more now. Before my double mastectomy, I had been fretting about my appearance afterwards. It gnawed at me. In fact, spent an entire hour with my oncology therapist discussing this. My concern over this and the pain I was experiencing post-surgery became so trivial.
Thankfulness is something I like to flood my thoughts with. It gets me through and always has. In the hour and week following the news from my surgeon, gratefulness was not a word I would use during that time. I’m not going to tell you to be grateful for bad news. What I am going to tell you to do after a few days or week is to look for things to ge grateful for. I asked my oncologist if it was a “good” thing that I did chemo then my mastectomy. Knowing I didn’t respond well to chemo meant I got information about what more I needed to be closer to my goal of never having cancer again.
Honestly, I felt like I had let people down by not having a full response, I’m a people pleaser and I can’t help but think this way. My body had failed me. I reached out to my family and close friends before making my news public. They prayed for me, reminded me that I have gotten through it before with a positive attitude and I’ll get through it again, and also reassured me that my feelings were valid. It’s ok to be sad and feel defeated, but you can’t let it consume you. My pink sisters surrounded me with reassurance and one pink sister connected me with someone in the same situation. This one connection gave me hope and relief.
After I made it public that I was “cancer free” but still needed to continue treatment, I was flooded with encouragement. The texts, Facebook comments, phone calls, and my husband all reminded me that I need to go in full force with a positive attitude. I’m so thankful for these people. My family told me they’d rearrange their life to make sure I was supported if I had bad side effects. They assured me that they’d be there for me and hire babysitters and take time off work to come help me if needed. I’m grateful for their sacrifices to make sure my next 6 months aren’t overwhelming.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I do not that my family and friends will be holding me up in prayer, sending me encouraging words, and be willing to help if needed. Defeat may be the first feelings I had, but a feeling of determination to get through this while moving forward will serve me better. I need to be determined to show my kids how strong you can be in terrible situations. Pink sisters, take your time to get to a grateful state, we all process differently, but don’t let it consume you. Life is too beautiful to let cancer steal your joy!
Charissa Bates is children's mental health therapist and author who writes books addressing cancer for adults and children. Learn more here.