Survivor Stories 2013:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
On September 28th 2010, I was awakened with shooting pain to my right breast. I am a person can sleep standing up, with lights on and a live band playing. So, to be awakened was a rare occurrence. I immediately felt a lump.
I don’t consider myself to be an alarmist and promptly went back to sleep. On September the 30th, the exact same thing happened. Reminding myself that I am NOT an alarmist, I assumed that this lump was dense tissue, a direct result of drinking coffee….a new and unfortunate habit to which I succumbed as a result of total fatigue. Additionally, I assured myself that breast cancer doesn’t typically hurt. So, I wasn’t particularly worried.
I was happy (and a little relieved), however, to already have an appointment with a gynecologist in Santa Barbara for a full checkup the week later. Circumstances moved at light speed after that appointment. Within 48 hours, I found myself in a radiologist’s office and then breast surgeon’s office faced with a breast cancer diagnosis.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
I felt as if I was about to be in a car crash, where everything happens before you know it, but it feels like slow motion. The radiologist said to me, “You have 4 tumors in your right breast and 3 in your left. We need to do a biopsy today and an MRI as soon as possible for what I highly suspect to be breast cancer. Here are the images. You can see right here…” My first thought was to remind myself that people forget virtually everything thing that comes after the word “cancer,” so, I………. <insert official doctor speak here>
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
Though most people believe that treatments are “prescribed,” the best course of action is to make decisions in partnership with your physicians. So, I became empowered and helped develop and revise my plan of care with my doctors. My physician team consisted of an oncologist, palliative care physician, plastic surgeon, breast surgeon and radiation oncologist.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
Throughout this process, I have been able to witness – with gratitude – so many Silver Linings. When you have cancer, Silver Linings come in small and in big packages, from watching a hummingbird outside my window (because I was too sick to stand) to being cancer-free after enduring the longest and most difficult year of my life. The beautiful thing about Silver Linings is that they provide balance and perspective even on your darkest days.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Below are some practical tips to help manage these feelings:
– First, breath. I know that this sounds easy, but after you hear the words “You have cancer,” breathing takes a whole lot of work.
– Work on developing non-cancer identity. From the time I started writing the blog, I have been adamant about cancer being one – just one! – part of my life. It is so important to identify with many more things in your life – other than cancer.
– Seek peace and tranquility. Mine comes from nature. The mountains and the ocean my sources of soulfulness and joy. When I am hiking or at the beach, I am joyfully reminded that I am part of something much, much bigger in the world.
– Reinforce past adaptive strategies for coping under stress. In other words, ask yourself: What else has been difficult in your life and how did you handle?
– Diet & Exercise are incredibly important!
– Complementary Therapies, such as meditation, energy work (Qi Gong, Reiki, etc. and relaxation
techniques (breathing, muscle relaxation, guided imagery) continue to be hugely helpful when I’m feeling off-kilter.
– There are many more supportive, informative and hopeful tips on TheSilverPen.com
6. How long have you been cancer free?
I have been cancer free since late 2011, which is the best Silver Lining of all!
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Lesson #1: Honor the feelings and let them out. Prior to my experience with FBC (female breast cancer), I was a grin-and-bear-it kind of girl who was reluctant to share any feeling other than joy. However, once ‘Roid Rage (the intense feelings of anger brought on by pre-chemotherapy steroids) and Chemo-Sobby (tears at the drop of a hat brought on by the chemo drugs) entered my life, I had no choice but to let it all out. And you know what? Expressing feelings, all feelings, happens to feel good, really good. Though I no longer have either ‘Roid Rage or Chemo-Sobby (thank goodness!), I continue to openly express my feelings. And it still feels good!
Lesson #2: Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. As John Donne so memorably wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” It took a cancer diagnosis for me to really get the meaning of this. I now know that seeking support is both the loving and strong thing to do. By getting the right help, whether in making decisions or making meals, I came to realize that letting go of control and delegating is a way to honor yourself and to honor those around you.
Lesson #3: It’s just hair.One of the things that I was most anxious about prior to starting chemotherapy was losing my hair. There are studies that show that for many women, losing their hair is worse than losing a breast. As soon as my hair started falling out, I had a Chemo Coiffure (i.e, I shaved my head). What I learned was that anticipation was far worse than reality. While I didn’t exactly think bald was beautiful, I realized bald wasn’t so bad.
Lesson #4: Breast cancer isn’t a fight (at least for me). Were the treatments awful? Yes. Was it a struggle? Yes, of course. Omnipresent in our culture are cancer “fighting” messages. Frankly, the thought of “fighting” makes my stomach turn and has a tremendously pejorative connotation. Why add insult (fighting) to injury (cancer)? So, if I didn’t “fight,” WTF did I do, you ask? I harnessed energy. I found silver linings. I laughed (at myself, mostly). I rested. I allowed the treatments to work. I tried a whole lot of things that I’d never done before (e.g., giving myself IV fluids, getting fitted for a custom bustier bolus, writing). I didn’t fight. I looked for inner peace and understanding and saw my life as a blessing full of Silver Linings.
Lesson #5: No Should-ing. I used to be a big “should-er.” I was always saying “I should go to this. I should do that.” True, there are certain things in the world that are not options, e.g., death, taxes, eating, breathing (in the reverse order, of course!) and reading to your children. I also believe that being kind is a moral imperative that is nonnegotiable. Aside from these things, “should-ing” does not make for a happy life. I now make decisions based on whether or not it will make my heart sing.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Each and every day, look for a Silver Lining (or two or three!). Silver Linings don’t take away side effects
of cancer treatments or make the wait time in a doctor’s office go more quickly or make traffic move any faster, but they do provide balance and perspective. It is this balance and perspective that will lift your spirits on the darkest of days.
Hollye Jacobs is a breast cancer survivor, former nurse, social worker, author and award-winning blogger (chosen by Forbes). Her website, The Silver Pen, has garnered her thousands of readers, and she also writes for The Huffington Post.
Her mission is to find the silver lining in every negative experience she has been through. Every year to the day of her diagnosis, she tries to accomplish some kind of feat to make sure she remembers the day as one of overcoming a challenge. For instance, she ran her first marathon this past year on her diagnosis anniversary.