I am 34 years old and I’ve had breast cancer twice. I have so much to say on the topic, but in an effort to organize my thoughts, I will break it into three parts.
Part 1- Life After Cancer
I am told I am one of the lucky ones because I caught my breast cancer early. Twice. I was ‘stage 2’ both times. My cancer has not yet metastasized- meaning it has never spread beyond my breast. If I am really lucky, it never will. But now that I have had breast cancer twice, I have a 30% chance that it will spread. Someday. And once breast cancer goes all metastatic on your ass, you have an average of five years to live. Metastatic breast cancer is also known as ‘stage 4’ breast cancer. It’s a pretty terrifying statistic to live with every day.
My family carries one of the genetic cell mutations that causes cancer. Only 5% of cancers are hereditary in this way. Again, lucky me, huh? We are ‘BRCA2’ positive. And when I say ‘we,’ I am referring to my late mother, two of my aunts, and one of my cousins that have been tested for the gene so far. It’s pretty widespread in my family. Genetic testing was a huge leap in the right direction for helping to understand this disease. And despite all of us benefitting from breast cancer research, it doesn’t make me feel very lucky.
I’ve gone through a double mastectomy (for my first cancer battle), a lumpectomy (for my second battle), chemotherapy, and radiation.
I’ve had to empty drains several times a day that were coming out of my body after my mastectomies. They contained cherry-colored fluid and I would dry heave as I poured them into my toilet.
I’ve had days where every pore and every bone of my body ached from injections that boosted my white blood cells when chemotherapy killed them. The pain was so intense, nothing helped it. Nothing.
My skin has been burnt by radiation to the point that it hurts to wear clothing and sleeping through the night is out of the question.
My ovaries are all but fried but I guess it doesn’t matter because they will have to be removed soon, too. Cancer made the decision for me as to whether I will have biological children or not.
I am post-menopausal.
I have ten scars on my chest.
In addition to all of the shit cancer has put me through (it also took my dad in September of 2011 and my mom in October of 2012), it also resides in the back corners of my mind every day. As all survivors know, you can’t get a headache without thinking your cancer has spread to your brain. It’s the reason many survivors are being diagnosed with PTSD.
It’s similar to when a soldier returns from war and everyone assumes they can just assimilate back to normal life immediately after walking off the battlefield. When you ‘survive’ cancer, you are not care-free the moment you walk out of your last chemo. A post-cancer life is one full of tests, anxiety, and worry.
In spite of it all, I am probably the happiest person you will ever meet. Like, you could probably meet me for the first time and want to slap the goofy smile off of my face within fifteen minutes. Aside from cancer, I have an amazing life filled with joy and laughter. In that respect, I AM one of the lucky ones.
Part 2- Research, Pink Ribbons, and Campaign Slogans
Although there is a TON of breast cancer research being done, there is not much progress being made on metastatic breast cancer which kills 40,000 women every year. In fact, it’s been killing 40,000 women per year since the 1980’s. 99% of breast cancer deaths are from metastatic breast cancer. And yet, metastatic breast cancer only receives about 2% of the funding from breast cancer research (source: metavivor.org). For women diagnosed with stage 4, these facts are infuriating. It’s as if no one cares that all of these mothers, wives, and sisters are dying.
I just want to go on record and say that I don’t hate the pink ribbon. Clearly, it’s been effective. If it weren’t for all the money raised by pink ribbon events and products, genetic testing would have never become available and I would most-likely not have caught my cancer early.
“If your breast cancer campaign
is focusing on the BREASTS of the
woman, and not her LIFE, then
you’re doing it wrong.”
That being said, I do believe that we’ve raised enough “awareness” with the pink ribbon at this point. We need more funding to go towards stage four breast cancer research. 2% is not enough when it is causing 99% of breast cancer deaths. We need a cure, dammit. I don’t want to lose my life to metastatic breast cancer. And my heart aches for the 3200 women a day that do.
Something that I DO hate are companies that plaster pink ribbons on their products in an effort to make more money. My advice is to never buy something with a pink ribbon and assume the company is contributing a dime to breast cancer research. If you are unsure, you can always write a letter to the company asking for more details about their donation policy.
Something else I don’t particularly care for is the sexualization of breast cancer campaigns. Without naming specifics here, you know the ones I mean-any of them that call out ‘boobies’, ‘tatas’, ‘second base’, etc.
Look, I get it. Boobs are, indeed, fantastic. But celebrating breasts has a time and place-like in the pages of Playboy or at your local gentlemen’s club.
If your breast cancer campaign is focusing on the BREASTS of the woman, and not her LIFE, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s offensive to those of us that have fought for our lives against this disease.
Part 3- Advice from your Local Cancer Survivor
When my parents were still alive, I loved nothing more than to make them proud of me. I still find it very difficult when I succeed at something and I can’t call them first. I have an amazingly supportive wife and she is my biggest cheerleader, but it’s different. There’s nothing like the pride that comes from your parents when you achieve something great. I missed them so much throughout both of my battles.
Of all the wonderful things I’ve accomplished in my life, I never thought being a poster child for cancer would be one of them. But, as it turns out, I am pretty good at beating cancer. And not only have I done it twice, I’ve had that big goofy smile on my face the whole time.
I’ve poured a lot of energy into trying to make other cancer-fighters laugh with me, too. I have a blog and a YouTube channel. My Facebook and Instagram accounts are loaded with silly posts of me posing with wigs and ridiculous drawn-on eyebrows.
Laughing and smiling have been one coping mechanism for me and the other has definitely been my network of friends and family that have helped me. The nucleus of that support system is most certainly my wife-her name is Sarah, too. I may have drawn the short stick when it comes to being healthy- but man, did I hit the jackpot in the spouse department. During all of this, I’ve had a few dark days (I am, after all, human) and Sarah was my glowing beacon-always there to wipe my tears and pick me up.
My advice to anyone battling cancer is this: Figure out who your support system is, and surround yourself with those people. Focus your energy on being happy. Start every day and end every day reminding yourself of what makes you happy and what you are thankful for. #startandendhappy
During my chemo, I woke up in a shit mood ONE day and the rest of that day was HELL. At one point, I sat up in bed, pulled my knees to my chest, and started saying ‘this is only temporary, this is only temporary’ and I felt as if a heaviness was literally lifted off of my hunched shoulders. That single moment confirmed for me that attitude is everything with this disease.
My advice to anyone that knows someone battling cancer is this: The best thing you can do for that person is to be there for them. Drop off meals, walk their dogs or clean their homes. Offer them rides to treatments or send them little care packages to let them know you are thinking about them (audio books are great, fyi).
So many people say ‘Let me know if you need anything’ which is a wonderful offer, but it also puts the ownership on the cancer patient to reach out and sometimes people are not comfortable doing that. I am so fortunate to have an incredible spouse, amazing friends and coworkers, and family members that helped me through it (twice). I hear so many horror stories about people losing friends or going through a divorce after their cancer diagnosis, I simply cannot imagine facing any of that on top of dealing with cancer.
If you need further advice or want to connect with a goofy, cancer-killing ginger-my email is firstname.lastname@example.org