Editor's note: The following column originally appeared on January 4, 2017.
Today, January 4, is my last day of treatment for breast cancer. I am happy to report that my final radiation treatment with the good people at Memorial Sloan Kettering will happen this afternoon and I couldn't be happier!
It's been nine months since I was diagnosed and during that time all my mental energies have been directed at fighting this beast: cancer. As those of you who know me have already heard, I had a mastectomy of my right breast, four months of chemo, breast reconstruction surgery and five weeks of daily radiation. To be honest, it's been long and tough.
When I started on this journey late last April, all I wanted was to get back to normal -- to make a recovery both physically and mentally to where I was before cancer. I’ve got to get back to work, I kept thinking. I hate missing out on all these good stories. But surprisingly, getting back to that “normal” was not in the cards. And, the real shocker is this: my new normal is infinitely better than my old.
When I started on this journey late last April, all I wanted was to get back to normal -- to make a recovery both physically and mentally to where I was before cancer.
I’ve got to get back to work, I kept thinking. I hate missing out on all these good stories. But surprisingly, getting back to that “normal” was not in the cards. And, the real shocker is this: my new normal is infinitely better than my old.
In fact, I feel like I am better than I was when I started treatment. How can that be? After all, I still am more likely to develop a second breast cancer down the road than folks who’ve never had it at all.
The truth is this – I am happier, more open and patient and I am razor-sharp on the things that matter most to me. I don’t feel that mental fog that envelopes so many of us in today’s social media obsessed world. I can filter out the noise and I feel, well, (maybe this is crazy) unburdened and light.
I feel lucky to have come out the other side of treatment in one piece and eager for the next chapter of whatever I am going to do next.
As I’ve said so many times before, cancer is a great teacher. And, today, on my last day of treatment, what I now know is this: challenges like the one I’ve faced shouldn’t be feared but faced directly because there is good in every journey.
Sure, I had a good cry when I was diagnosed, but there were so many bright spots, funny events, and beauty along the way. This surprise by joy is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given even though I had to fight a health demon to receive it.
Had I not had cancer, I would never have seen how supportive my husband could be. When I was literally shaking with fear and worry about the first surgery, David calmed and reassured me, expressing an unshakable confidence that I would come out on top.
Had I not had cancer, I never would have spent four days with my brother – just the two of us – getting to know each other as adults and re-establishing the deep connection we had as children.
Had I not had cancer, I wouldn’t have spent hours walking in the Berkshire mountains inspired by the beauty of God’s creation.
On some days, I even found myself laughing. The day I first met the doctor who would conduct my breast reconstruction surgery was a downright hoot. He told me that he couldn’t reconstruct breasts as small as mine. In other words, to make reconstruction work, he’d have to give me breast implants. To which I responded, “You mean you have to make my breasts bigger? Awesome!”
My point is this: if you are one of those people putting off cancer screening or delaying a doctor visit because you fear what you might be told, make the call and take the test because what you expect to happen probably won’t. It will invariably be different from the design that you see for yourself and it very well can be better.
I think we all know and understand that how one responds to crisis, tragedy or simply hard times defines character. What I wish for you is this: That without the tragedy of a cancer diagnosis you can open your eyes to the wonder and the silliness and the joy that is around you. For me that was the constancy of my husband and family, the occasional inanities of treatment, and the beauty of our world.
To be sure, today, for me, is the end of the beginning.
I will be tested again and again for cancer to make sure it doesn’t return and I will take hormone regulating pills for ten years.
I will be vigilant, but I will also be better, because I now see the many gifts in my world that I had been blind to.