The first Sunday in June is set aside as National Cancer Survivors Day, and is meant to be a celebration for those who have survived cancer, an inspiration for those newly diagnosed and a show of support for those currently in the midst of cancer treatments. I think that the day is such a beautiful way to recognize cancer survivors, but I also think that there are some things that anyone who has had or has cancer wants everyone else to know.
In June of 2018 at the age of 31 and with three small kids in the car with me, I received a phone call to let me know that the biopsy I had the week before actually showed that I had breast cancer. I had no family history, I was in the middle of training for my 2nd marathon and I had no idea that I could even get breast cancer. It took us all by surprise and in that very instant I knew our lives would never be the same. Not mine, or my husbands or my kids.
We tackled appointments and surgeries and scans and chemo infusions and radiation and a year of more infusions to make sure mom’s cancer didn’t come back. And then one day, they took my port out and to everyone on the outside I was DONE! I had survived! But for me it felt like I had been hit by a train over and over and over again for a year and now I was left on the road to pick myself back up again and try to learn how to live again.
We were extremely lucky to have family and friends and coworkers who came together in ways we won’t ever be able to thank them adequately enough for. They brought meals, they checked in on us, they threw a family game night for our family, they made my kids happy and loved and ensured they had fun things to do and play with. When I was diagnosed, the only thing I thought I needed was for my kids to continue with their lives with as little disruption as possible. And during treatment it was, and it made what I was doing so much easier knowing that they were having fun and were loved and that they didn’t fully understand how sick their mom was. Then when everything was over, I realized that I didn’t know how to continue living a life after all that had happened to me. I lived in fear of recurrence and wasn’t sure how to adjust to no more appointments and no more medicine keeping me safe.
I think what so many people don’t realize is that while we need help in the middle of all the yuck and hard stuff…we really need help learning how to just be a person again. Sometimes people need therapy and some people need more mental health support but I know for sure what everyone who has had cancer needs is compassion. And continued compassion and care and checking in because we have all been changed by what we went through. It’s hard to ask for these things when so many people have given so much to us, but I think it’s important for people to know that cancer doesn’t just end when treatment does. Sometimes days like this can remind us of what we went through and how fragile life can be. Cancer changed us in a way I wouldn’t want anyone else to have to go through and while I am so proud of how far I have come, I also know how lucky I am that my treatment worked and know that something can happen again at anytime.
I used to hate the words survivor because it felt icky when I knew so many people who didn’t get a chance to finish treatment. Cancer isn’t a game that you can just win… you can’t put in a lot of hard work and find success. Cancer is just a random draw of who has chemo that is successful and who doesn’t. Of who has a surgery that is successful and who doesn’t. Of who has access to the best care and insurance that can pay for that care. Cancer is not a battle to be won, because when you’re diagnosed you have no choice. You just do what you need to do if you want a better chance to keep living. I think cancer survivors just want other people to know that this was hard and can still be hard for us. Living in bodies that have been changed by either surgery or treatment or procedures isn’t something we signed up for. And it can be challenging to figure out how to live in these new bodies. We want everyone to realize that usually the going through treatment and surgery and radiation and all the medicine and appointments is actually the easier part and that trying to figure out who you are and how you can go on after cancer is where it gets hard…and when we need our people who love us to check in now and again. I think so many people are unsure of what to say or how to ask if someone is okay when they know they just did something really hard, but what I’ve found is that sometimes a simple message that you are thinking of them is the best kind of support anyone can give. There isn’t really anything wrong you can say!
So, all of this to say, this cancer survivor wants you to know this on this day…just keep caring about us. We are proud of how far we have come and we want you to know that even when we aren’t in treatment we are still dealing with side effects both physically and mentally. We are still here when cancer treatment ends and we appreciate those people who check in with us more than you know. We can be so proud of how far we have come and proud to be a survivor AND be struggling with how to live in the after.