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Then and Now: Reflections for a New Year of Survivorship After Cancer

Doing a little reflection about where I've been and how far I've come is just as important as making resolutions.
I’m not much of a resolution-maker. I hate the idea of setting a goal too lofty to accomplish, only to be sorely disappointed in myself. Plus, my son’s birthday is during the first week in January, and with all the cake and special meals and last-minute shopping that accompany a birthday, starting a bold new fitness and diet routine in January is bound to end badly. Normally, my new year’s reflections are much like those in September when the new school year starts, when I decide what changes need to be made to make my schedule flow more smoothly.

This year, I’m coming up on three years since finishing treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. I didn’t let myself entertain such thoughts, but I think subconsciously: If I made it three years, that would be when I would escape the haze of cancer, when I’d be healthy again, when the worry would stop. Now coming up to that self-imposed deadline, I’m not sure that it will automatically free me from the purgatory that is waiting for the next scare that cancer has returned. At least, if that nagging never subsides completely, maybe it will quiet with more time? There are some parts of my life that have been irrevocably altered, and yet, in some ways, I can see my pre-cancer self returning.

After three years, I think I thought I might “outgrow” some of these things, but alas, that ship has probably sailed.
  • I will never wear a seatbelt the same way again. On the passenger side, it doesn’t bother me too much, but on the driver side, the seatbelt cuts between my breasts and touches the inside of my right breast in such a way that it drives me crazy — the nerves there were damaged during surgery, just not so much that I have lost every last bit of sensation. Any time I’m in the driver seat, I instinctively hold my seatbelt out away from my body.
  • I still have some occasional peripheral neuropathy. Very rarely I feel it in my fingertips, but on a pretty regular basis, I’ll feel some neuropathy in my toes when I get up from couch. I can almost always feel it for the first mile of a run on any day that I wouldn’t consider hot. It feels much like when you’ve been standing out in the cold way too long and you can’t really feel your toes anymore. It’s a weird sensation when you’ve been outside for two minutes and it’s 50 degrees, though.
  • I cry more. I’ve never been a big crier, and save a few difficult moments immediately after receiving my cancer diagnosis, I didn’t cry at all during my cancer treatment. (Yes, I can see now that my reaction was not normal. Maybe even not so healthy. But there it is). Lately, I find myself getting weepy so much more easily. Obviously I cry when it has anything to do with cancer — either at a triumphant remission or the heartbreak of a metastatic recurrence or a family facing a loved one’s final days. But this summer I was also a complete mess when my daughter worked crazy hard to earn her place on a team after hearing she probably wouldn’t make the final cut. I cry at sporting events, when I hear certain songs and when I think too specifically about the future. Maybe I’m more in touch with the preciousness of life. Or maybe I’m just a little bit of a basket case.
  • I’m a worrier. I never used to be a worrier. I didn’t worry about little aches and pains. I took care of what needed to be taken care of, but I didn’t worry about things that got better with Advil, and I certainly didn’t worry about them before the Advil. Now I struggle to even take the Advil, worried I’ll mask a potentially significant pain. Somewhere in my head, I thought getting to the three-year mark would make those fears would disappear. Now I’m just hoping that eventually they’ll dissipate.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Breast cancer CURE discussion group.
As a PhD student in tumor biology, Jamie Holloway survived long hours researching breast cancer in the labs of Georgetown University. Ten years later, after being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, she survived that too. Now with no evidence of disease, she shares a patient's perspective with scientists and clinicians as a breast cancer research advocate. A wife, mother, runner, and lipstick addict, she shares her story from the perspective of both a patient and a scientist.
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