Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
A recurrence is always a possibility for any victim of cancer, but should survivors expect a recurrence? If so, how can they prepare for that possibility?
That elusive five-year mark is just around the corner, and believe me, I've looked forward to it for some time now. Maybe I've deceived myself into thinking if I could just make it to the five-year mark, I'd be home free, and that a recurrence of cancer might somehow pass me by. I've done everything I could to stay under the radar. I've followed the doctors' instructions to a tee, but why do I feel the need to prepare just in case?
I'm not one to borrow trouble and I certainly don't want to spend my days worrying, but I keep feeling like something's just around the corner — something I won't like.
But what can I do to prepare myself for a possible recurrence? I can't think of a thing. I've done my best to eat right, exercise, visit my doctors and ingest a healthy handful of herbal, cancer-fighting supplements each day.
It would be nice to know the first round of cancer was my one and only battle to fight. And that's pretty much the way I've looked at it. Cancer came, cancer destroyed and cancer left. It was like a tsunami, unexpected and devastating but after the waters receded, I was left to pick up the pieces and put my life back together. No one else could do it but me. And I did just that.
The first year was extremely difficult. I didn't think I was going to survive it. Surgery, treatment and physical therapy consumed the days. I looked horrible and I felt even worse. But when the second year came around, I found myself doing much better. My will to survive was strong. I chose to push through and do the things I enjoyed doing. I was beginning to see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel.
When I reached my third cancerversary, I honestly felt like a weight had been lifted. Cancer seemed far behind me and there was so much life ahead of me. I'd almost reached a place of being able to forget the trauma I'd experienced, almost.
Now we're close to the middle of January, and as I look at the calendar, I see a memo on July 9 that says, "Celebrate your fourth cancerversary!" Four years....in just six more months, it will be four years since I was diagnosed. That's a wonderful milestone to celebrate, and believe me, I will definitely have a big party on that day. But in the back of my mind, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Why do doctors insist on giving us the hope of the five-year mark? I understand, according to most medical research, that the chance of recurrence is highest within the first five years post diagnosis but do they ever stop and think about how that specific timeline affects us?
For me, it's almost like there's a long fishing pole in the sky dangling a huge cement number five over my head. If I make it to my fifth cancerversary, the monument will shatter into a million pieces and I'll heave a huge sigh of relief. But if by some chance, I'm diagnosed with a recurrence before I reach the five-year mark, I can almost picture my medical staff huddling in the corners of the hospital whispering amongst themselves, "We knew it. We told her. What did she expect?"
There's really no way to prepare for the possibility of a recurrence of cancer. Even if a person is affected by cancer a second time, chances are things will be vastly different than the first experience. A cancer recurrence may require different treatment. It may not respond to conventional therapies and no one knows when or if a malignancy will occur.
So, what do we do? Do we sit idly by and wait for the five-year mark to come and go? Or do we forget about the numbers and just concentrate on living our lives for as long as we can?
Personally, I think it's best to forget about the numbers. Who wants to waste valuable precious time focusing on getting to the finish line of the five-year mark? Not me.
I don't know when or if I'll experience a recurrence of cancer. I certainly hope I never have to go through another ordeal like that in my lifetime but if I do, I know I'm going to fight. I'm not going to just give up and give in.
There are articles giving advice on what to do when recurrence comes and I'm sure they are helpful, but it would be wonderful if doctors would stop handing out those five year notes so freely. Why can't they just encourage their patients to live their best life and to look at their cancer experience as a blip on the radar?
We don't have control over many things in this world, but we can control our outlook and our attitude. Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm choosing to believe I'll make it to that five-year mark and I won't have a recurrence of cancer ever again. But I could and if I do, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
One of my neighbors was diagnosed with breast cancer 24 years ago. She went through surgery and treatment just like I did. She struggled for the first few years after diagnosis and then things got better. She started living her life and she lived it well. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with a recurrence. Once again, she went through treatment and thought she was going to get better, but she didn't. Her health rapidly declined and she died. She told me before she passed away that she never expected to have a recurrence especially after that lengthy interlude. I asked if she was shocked when she got the news that her cancer was back and she told me no. She'd always felt like it might come back but she didn't want to acknowledge her fears.
One of the most important things I learned from my sweet friend was to take one day at a time. None of us know what tomorrow holds and it's extremely difficult to live life under the umbrella of fear. With that in mind, I'm going to do my best to take her advice. One day at a time seems like enough to handle for this ol' girl.