Eight Years and Counting Up: A Reflection on Life and Lessons of Cancer


The new year brings reflection on living fully with cancer.

The start of each new year marks the anniversary of beginning treatment for stage 4 breast cancer. I don’t exactly celebrate it because there’s still a whole lot of trauma associated with the diagnosis, the ongoing treatments, side effects and the collateral damage to my life overall.

But I do take time to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I want to go, in a low-pressure way. No resolutions to take up fervently and abandon by March. I don’t need to break from the past, as in new year’s resolutions. What I want is progress and growth, not something different but something even better for me.

I have been in treatment for metastatic breast cancer for a full eight years. When I was diagnosed, median prognosis was three years. Three years is not a lot of time, and that was the median. Three years was not a promise. Unlike many of my friends, both with and without my same diagnosis, I have responded to treatment in the best way imaginable.

My Januarys, once I made it past that three-year mark, have been one point where I intentionally reflect on gratitude for my life and if I have been making choices that fulfill me. This January, I have found myself not just remembering what makes me happy but taking responsibility to center those things in my daily life and doing it without guilt or excuses.

You’ll have your own list, but this is how I’m entering my ninth year with cancer:

Minding my mind. Eight years is a long time to live with treatments and all that cancer care encompasses. I am grateful and I am occasionally exhausted by it. My kids were in middle school and high school when I was diagnosed, my body and mind are different because of the treatments, and my ability to have “space” for other issues as they turn up is limited. In short, I was suffering in 2022 and it took a while for me to acknowledge that I needed professional help, a safe place to talk and to work through issues and events without feeling judged. It was needed right away. When I’m feeling emotionally drained or confused, I can’t find happiness. I put mental health centerstage as I thought about progress in my life during 2023.

Returning to the tried-and-true. January always brings up memories of my first year with cancer, when, on a whim, I showed up one Friday morning at a qi gong class. The teacher was Frank, retired military, humorous and peaceful. Though it has been over seven years, I still hear him saying “You don’t have to attach to every thought and emotion crossing your mind” while using the example of him “not attaching” to the thought of his wife’s request that he pick up more carrots.

This meditative practice fell apart for me when Frank became unwell and stopped teaching. I couldn’t adjust to the new teacher and then the pandemic began and while classes eventually resumed on Zoom, I didn’t attend. In the spirit of looking backward for what has worked for my self-care, I have recently returned to masked in-person qi gong. My body immediately remembering the movements and tuning in to the peacefulness. Everybody has their own thing—maybe you find focus in painting or hiking but have abandoned it over time. Sometimes you don’t need something new, you need something that has already helped.

Fitting in fitness. A lot is written about exercise and diet when we talk about cancer. In my acknowledgement of eight years with cancer, I include the fact that these two things have made a difference for me, both in terms of feeling some small bit of control but also because they are very normal things that people without cancer also care about.

I am continuing my two-mile walks a few times a week but adding in more balance and strength exercises. I want to continue to be able to hike, kayak (including getting out of the kayak) and exert myself when and how I want without feeling too at risk for a fall. I like exercise that is purposeful — what do I want to achieve? For me, it’s the ability to find contentment and adventure outdoors. Those objectives guide what I do. What are your goals?

Learn, grow, explore. Living with cancer means deeply understanding that no one has unlimited time. Life is short, so live now. In 2022, I remembered with a jolt that it’s OK to throw yourself into new experiences. I’m giving myself permission to be curious and fully engaged, whatever that means and however it shows up. Openness to ideas and experiences is a quality that has consistently brought meaning into my life. I’m grateful for the sudden reminder last year and what it could mean this year.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.

Related Videos
Image of a woman with black hair.
Image of a woman with brown shoulder-length hair in front of a gray background that says CURE.
Sue Friedman in an interview with CURE
Catrina Crutcher in an interview with CURE