Challenges allow us to see strength emerging in ourselves and others, and allows learning and personal growth to take place. And for some, courage arises and becomes more visible during the worst of times. Unexpected but gratifying affirmations of that courage and determination often follow.
It seems like a LONG time ago that I first heard the cancer diagnosis coming at me, but it was only 15 months ago.
Sixteen months have passed since I found the suspicious mass that brought me face to face with the likelihood of a cancer diagnosis. The question that remained for me after this self-discovery was not IF it would turn out to be cancer, but what stage and type of tumor it would turn out to be. I had done enough clinical breast exams in my professional role as a nurse practitioner to know which findings were worrisome, and mine met the criteria.
After waiting 2 weeks for an appointment with my primary care physician and another 2 weeks for the diagnostic mammogram (not an unreasonable interval but one which still felt like an eternity!), I had the testing and arrived in the waiting area afterwards to wait for results. I joined the sea of pink-smocked women all waiting to hear their own results. I tried not to take in the anxiety-filled atmosphere around me.
When I heard my first name called, presumably to preserve privacy and conform with HIPAA privacy regulations by not using last names, I walked over to the person who would tell each of us our fate: further testing, or all clear and return to your life. I was told my results were fine and I could leave. For a brief moment I fantasized that my results really were fine, but I was certain my results were not okay, and questioned her to be sure. I challenged the "normal" result.
That is when she realized that I was not the person whose test results she had just communicated, although my first name was the same. The results she gave me were someone else's.
And so it was that my first moments of self-advocacy in this cancer detour began.
Soon enough I would be having further imaging and then hear those results from the compassionate radiologist who interpreted the images - a high likelihood of cancer. My confirmatory biopsy took place that same afternoon. From that first day in the mammography suite to the oncology practice I was referred to initially for my chemotherapy, where I engaged again in self-advocacy to discover a missed diagnosis of a rare but serious treatment complication, I have maintained a level of personal and clinical vigilance that I had not ever anticipated would be so necessary.
When I look back, I know two things with certainty. Had I not questioned my initial "care" in the first oncology practice, it is highly likely that I would have continued to be seriously compromised by an undiagnosed complication and I would most likely not have been treated for the previously undetected HER-2 positive cancer, thereby missing one of the most successful targeted chemotherapies that greatly improves survival.
Ironically, I am grateful that my first oncologist and his entire clinical team were so utterly and repeatedly dismissive of my concerns. I am so grateful, in fact, that I coined a term for this: grudgitude.
This word is a descriptive combination of grudge (a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury) and gratitude (the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness). If I had not experienced these terrible unaddressed side effects and the ensuing dismissiveness of my concerns, I would not have felt compelled to seek a second opinion and transfer my care to an oncologist at a renowned academic medical center instead of the community based independent oncology practice where I received my initial treatment.
That decision changed the entire course of my treatment trajectory and has given me a much better experience and the highest probability of a lengthier disease free interval.
I am grateful also for many of the things a cancer diagnosis brings along with it: facing my own mortality head-on, heightened appreciation for each day, no matter what it brings, and losing the assumption that I (or any of us) are guaranteed our statistical life expectancy.
Although my professional career is now at an end, and my licenses retired along with me, I am grateful that my ability to advocate and influence remains, along with the ability to continually reprioritize how I spend my time each day. All of which brings me back to today, as I receive my 16th of 18 planned targeted chemotherapy infusions: floating in gratitude.