A year ago, as I turned 42, life was fairly ordinary and routine. I didn’t have any major worries, my family was healthy with only the usual aches and pains, and I didn’t think much about turning another year older. Looking back, that ordinary, routine life was something that most of us, including myself, take for granted.
This year, as I’m turning 43, I wish for that ordinary life to come back to me. Unfortunately, that will never happen. My outlook on life has completely changed and nothing is taken for granted. Every day is a gift. Yes, I am back to work at the same job I had last year, I am still friends with the same people, I live in the same house, I drive the same truck, and I love the same man and 3 dogs. The only thing different is I battled breast cancer and won.
I am so thankful to be here today, writing about my life. My ordinary, routine life is mostly back, but it has become a new “normal.” I don’t consider 43 as getting old anymore. I think of it as another year I am blessed to live and enjoy. My new “normal” is okay. I am still battling many of the post cancer side effects. My hair is slowly growing, the fatigue is frustrating, and my fingertips and toes are still numb and tingly. I know I am impatient and I want the side effects to go away now. They remind me daily of the battle I fought and won. But that reminder also makes me thankful for each and every day. Cancer has changed me, and a year later, I can say it changed me for the better. Cancer has made me a better friend, a better person. Cancer has taught me to celebrate life, celebrate love, and celebrate friends.
Getting through cancer has also lessened some of my previous fears. I used to be petrified of heights. Now I can stand on the top rung of a ladder and my legs don’t even shake. Even as an adult, the dark was still frightening to me. I have always tried to hide that from others since I think it is a childish fear. Now I know there is nothing in the dark to fear except myself. Cancer has taught me that some of the fears I previously had, seem almost trivial now compared to fighting cancer.
Now, after having gone through my own cancer journey, I would wish upon the world that there not be any more cancer. Unfortunately that is not a possibility yet. Hopefully, that will change for the next generation and I will be a part of that fight. My next wish is for none of my loved ones to ever have to go through their own cancer journey.
That possibility came way too quickly. Barely a month after I could call myself a survivor, my best friend, Dawn, received a phone call from her doctor. They needed her to come back in for additional views with mammography and a sonogram. She kept most of it in, but I could tell how scared she was. Honestly, I think I was more scared. Having a loved one face cancer is one of my biggest fears. I know firsthand how difficult, painful, frightening, and dark that road is and I didn’t want anyone so close to me to have to go through this. Especially Dawn. She has so many struggles in her life already. She was there for me every day of my journey even though she had so many other things to take care of. She is still there for me, like any true friend is. I only hope I can be that same kind of friend for her. And then there was the thought at the back of my brain that if she was diagnosed with cancer, was it found soon enough. Hearing the word “cancer” brings with it one’s own mortality.
Dawn scheduled her additional mammogram and the sonogram. After reviewing the images, the doctor recommended a needle biopsy. Unfortunately, it had to be scheduled over a week out due to both her and her husband’s work schedules. It was an agonizing wait for all of us. I know it was tearing me up inside. It had already been such a long and difficult year for all of us and I didn’t know how much strength I had left. I could not tell Dawn that. I had to be strong for her like she was for me. I was thinking about how much it would turn her life upside down. And in that moment, I wished I could go through cancer again so she wouldn’t have to.
I then did for her what she had done for me. I sent her mountains of inspiration, love, and encouragement. I told her that no matter the outcome of the biopsy, we would face it together. Dawn said the needle biopsy went well and didn’t even hurt that much. She was told it would be a couple of days for the results. This was a Thursday so it looked like it would be a long weekend. I had had many weekends like this, waiting for the results of various tests. There really is no way to not think about it except trying to keep busy. I could have told her a million ways to fill the time but it would not have stopped the level of anxiety or fear.
I had a picture of Dawn and myself from The Cancer Resource Center Walk-A-Thon that I had put in a “Friends” picture frame. I tried to time the mailing of it so she would get it when she came home from the biopsy. I also composed a text message for her that I sent the morning of her biopsy. I was trying and hoping to be the best friend I could possibility be so she would know she was never alone. As it turned out, she did get the package in the mail the day of her biopsy. I was so happy she had it waiting for her at home. It was like I was waiting there for her, holding her hand.
I can’t even remember how many times I prayed. Prayer had become fairly routine in my life this year and I learned and believed that prayer does work and God is good. I prayed for strength for both of us. Tears were shed, but I kept them to myself. Sleep was lost, but I blamed it on the post-cancer fatigue. Dawn did not need a friend who was so anxious and fearful. She needed me to be the rock of support she had been for me. As I prepared myself for the long weekend ahead, my thoughts kept going back to Dawn and the fear she must have been facing. It’s indescribable and no one can truly understand that until they are put in that position.
Even though I didn’t want to, my thoughts drifted back to several family members who had lost their battles with cancer. My cousin, Bobby, had fought for so long before losing his battle in his early 30’s. I clearly remember his sister coming out the front door of the funeral home and collapsing to her knees. She had cried out through her tears, “Why? Why?” That moment was forever burned in my memory.
My cousin, Michael, lost his battle at the tender age of 18. He fought so valiantly when he should have been enjoying his teenage years. At Christmastime he had looked so good and we were all happy he was doing so well. Six months later his battle abruptly ended.
My grandmother was so stubborn, strong, and full of life. She had made her choice and made it against what her family would have wanted. She didn’t want to go through treatment or to be in the hospital. She lost to breast cancer, but she did it her way. I have luckily inherited her strong will and I am so thankful for that. There are others, but I tried so hard to stop myself from thinking about them. Negative thoughts are so unproductive and drained all my energy. I had found it hard to focus on anything while we waited for results, good or bad.
Then I found myself remembering that Monday night. The night that changed my life. I was so scared. Unable to move scared. Unable to talk scared. I was looking into the face of my own mortality and the fear I saw was devastatingly hellish. I was paralyzed and the earth stood still with absolutely no sense of time. Vision was bleary. I couldn’t see through the tears. The question, “Why?” kept bouncing around in my head. I felt a disconnection from myself, looking down, floating. That night has been burned into my brain. It will always be there, lurking beneath the surface, never letting me forget. Dawn was the only person I called that night. I couldn’t even call my parents.
Fortunately, we had a happy ending. Dawn found out the next day that the area of concern was benign. We wouldn’t have to wait through the weekend. The relief I felt was almost as intense as the fear was.
Karen M. Fries