Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
We are always faced with choices on this cancer journey. Even if you end up making a wrong turn, there is always a way to get back on track.
Crossroads along the cancer journey are a constant in my opinion. You meet the first one on the day of diagnosis. At that moment, you are on a path that has two options: you fight and take on the treatment options presented to you by your medical teams, or you run, wishing the diagnosis never graced you with its presence. I like to think all of us have taken the first road, whether we want to or not. There are many more crossroads within, such as which path of treatment options, what attitude are you going to take, etc. Maybe you don't think of each decision as a crossroad, but I certainly do. There are constant forks in my path and it's up to me to choose the way.
With that being said, I think one of the biggest crossroads comes when it is time to face survivorship. I thought this was the easy part of the cancer journey. I couldn't wait to call myself a survivor. For me, that was when I finished treatment. Everyone has their own view of when or if to call themselves a survivor. That's a whole topic on its own which I won't even tackle. The good news is that you are survivor whenever you decide to be one. For some, that is as soon as they hear the diagnosis, and for others it may be never. All that is just fine.
My cancer survivorship journey began in my eyes when the last drop of chemo was out of my body. That was supposed to be the best day of post-cancer diagnosis life. Well, at least that is what I thought. I had it all planned out. I'd already had a bilateral mastectomy; I'd had 12 weeks of chemo and I was supposed to then be rid of cancer forever. I thought I'd wake up that morning feeling free and positive. Oh, what a beautiful story that was that unfortunately never came true.
Standing at my cancer survivorship crossroad I saw two paths. One way was to accept the new normal, realize that cancer had changed the scope of my life, even if it never came back again. The other way was run towards my old life and the old me and live in constant fear of recurrence. I ended up taking path number two. It's an extremely rough road to go down, constantly paved with fear, doubt and wishes of what, in reality, could never be. Either path I took was going to change me no doubt, but looking back I know I took the wrong path and I have been trying to reach a new crossroads ever since.
I have lived in terrible fear of cancer recurrence for eight years now. I'll use a quote from the movie Shawshank Redemption and say: "It's a terrible thing to live in fear." Those eight words have so much meaning to me. It is a terrible thing. I've missed living the life I fought so hard to keep. I've focused on everything that could go wrong instead of enjoying what was right. I don't think I am the only one who hit the crossroad and took the wrong turn.
But, there is a way back. A new crossroad always presents itself. If your issues are like mine, you might wonder how do you get back on the right track? I've learned a few tips over the years. Here's my list:
1. Acceptance - It's the only way. The sooner you accept what has happened to you, whatever it might be, the better off you will be on moving forward in your life. This isn't easy. It took me about six years into my cancer journey to even understand the concept.
2. Patience - You will want to give yourself a break (a lot). This is not easy.
3. Move at your own pace - I compared myself to EVERYONE. How come so-and-so is only two years into survivorship and they are not fearful of cancer? How come I am eight years in and I am still terrified? That's what I always did and newsflash, it does not help recovery.
4. Seek help - There is no shame in getting some professional help. Speak to a medical professional who can help you sort out your emotions. I didn't do this until I was about four years into my survivorship journey. My only regret is I didn't do it sooner.
5. Self-care - You need to take care of you. If you are feeling crabby or mad at a point in time, go ahead and feel it. You want to be happy today? Great. You don't want to do something? Then don't. You don't have to do everything and be everything to everyone. You can only do what is best for you. Take care of yourself. Listen to yourself. You are the only one who knows what works for you and whatever that is, it is certainly OK.
Cancer survivorship has no manual. I would be first in line if there was one to buy. So, you learn as you go. The crossroads will present themselves more than you think. The good news is there is always a chance to get on the best path for you. There is always a way to get back on track. You just need to open your eyes and mind a bit to find what works for you.