The Guilt of Being a Cancer Survivor
Guilt? How can someone feel guilty for living? How can someone feel guilty for surviving the beast invading their body? I never understood "survivor's guilt" until I became a survivor myself.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has people around who love and depend on them. I was a young mom when I was diagnosed. My son, who was 3 at the time of my diagnosis, does not even remember the majority of our trauma. He doesn't remember what I looked like without hair. He doesn't remember not being able to hug and kiss me. Thank G-d.
Catherine was a mother is 3 children, the same age as mine. She owned her law firm and fought Triple Negative Breast Cancer 4 times before it took her life. Near the end, she would show me pictures of how the cancer literally ripped her skin open. It was painful to watch.
Marie-Elaine was a grandmother who not only gave so generously to her own family, but to those around her. When she saw on Instagram that my elderly dog can no longer jump on my bed, she insisted I come over and take the doggy stairs from her house.
Tasha, also a young mom had metastatic breast cancer. She traveled to the USA for experimental treatment, always dressed to the nines with a huge smile on her face. Sadly, she passed less than a month ago.
And Ellie. Sweet Ellie. A month younger than my boy Zachary. She died two weeks before her 9th birthday. There are no words.
These are just a handful of people I knew personally who lost their battles with cancer. Hearing about these passing's brings on a vulnerability and a reality about my own life. Why am I thriving while others are not? I am far from perfect - why am I still in this world when a child is not?
I am very cognizant of the fact that I am four months away from my big 5 year mark. When I was diagnosed with cancer 5 years ago, life was pretty damn close to perfect. We had just moved into our dream home, my brother just had his first child, I was in the best shape of my life, and we were traveling with my husband's ENTIRE family to Los Angeles for a big event. Cancer then swooped in and threw our world upside down. Today, life is good. My daughter is starting high school in a few short weeks. I am working out and getting stronger everyday. My dog is still with us, at 15 years old. Our house is still under renovations, but beautiful as ever. Do house renos ever stop? I think not!
Will our world be taken away from us again?
The back of my mind is always counting to those five years. In two weeks I have my appointment with my oncologist and the anticipation is palpable. Its been 6 months since my last blood tests. What makes me different than those people who have passed away from their cancers? What makes me different than those diagnosed with metastatic cancer? I am no better than them, no stronger than them, and not more loved than they are. Is it just a numbers game?
There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about those who we lost. Friday night Shabbat candles, I pray that they are at peace. I pray that their families are getting stronger every day.
If their deaths have taught me anything, it is that people like me need to continue the fight for those who cannot. I need to bring awareness and help raise money. I need to walk, run, bike, and whatever else is required of me to continue their fight. I will do interview after interview to remind others the importance of knowing their bodies. I will do what I can as often as I can.
To all those who have lost their lives to cancer, your deaths are not unnoticed. I will fight for our children and our grandchildren to hopefully live in a world without cancer. You may be gone, but you are never forgotten.
Love, Joy - Breast Cancer Survivor
Our Scars - My Double Mastectomy Tattoo
When my daughter was a year old, she fell and split her nose open. It was a horrific scene. She had four stitches across that little baby button nose of hers. Walking down the aisle of my brother's wedding three days later, we will always have pictures of that poor little munchkin in her gorgeous dress, but a face full of stitches. Now, though her scar is faded, it still remains. Most people don’t notice it, but of course we always know it’s there. When she has a suntan, her scar is more visible and she sometimes makes a comment about it.
A few months before my diagnosis of cancer Alessia Cara came out with her song "Scars to your beautiful". This song got big around the time of my surgery, and my kids now say that it’s my song. Not only am I scarred from my mastectomy, but I have two scars around my clavicle from my port-o-cath I had during chemo, four scars from my hysterectomy, and four scars from my drains. I hate those port-o-cath scars, a constant reminder of my chemotherapy. My veins were tired and painful from having so many chemotherapies and blood tests, that I underwent a procedure to put this port in so my chemo goes directly there instead of poking me for IVs. The port scars are visible in almost every shirt I wear. While my surgery represents me overcoming cancer, the port is surrounded by pain and suffering. My kids were so happy when the port was removed. Though it was under my skin, my son was scared of it. It was sensitive to the touch, and the kids had to be careful when snuggling me.
When "Scars to your Beautiful" comes on the radio, my kids sing (with mostly the wrong lyrics of course) at the top of their lungs. To my kids, my scars represent happiness. They are proud of their mommy's battle wounds. Those scars are proof that mommy beat cancer.
I don’t know whether it’s the song, my scars, or both, but my daughter has recently embraced her scar. She started calling it "our song" as is proud of her scar. Her scar tells a story, and she loves to tell it.
With so many songs out there that are inappropriate for little kids, I love the message this song has. My daughter is breath-takingly beautiful. She has thick long dark hair down to her bum, big beautiful blue eyes, and deep dimples in her cheeks. She is mini, but has an explosive personality that makes her the center of attention wherever she goes. My daughter's face is beautiful. My daughter's scar is beautiful.
None of us are perfect. We have scars and stretch marks and all sorts of imperfections. Our scars are beautiful. It is time we embrace them.
No Evidence Of Disease
Remission. Cancer free. Whatever you want to call it, life does not return to normal after treatment, something I learned the hard way.
I returned to work quickly after treatment. I was anxious to get back to my normal life. It quickly became apparent though that I was living a new type of normal. I was still in a wig, and had to deal with stress THAT. When will my wig come off? What will the kids at work think if they see me with a "buzz cut"? I was always known for my long blonde hair.
When I met new people, I found that I felt like there was this secret luring over my head. At what point does the topic come up? HOW does the topic come up?
Remission isn't only the end of my battle, but it was the start of my acceptance to life after treatment. It was living with a "me" who is NOT the most fit, who has some quirks and post-traumatic stress issues from cancer, etc. My muscles and bones ached like I was 85 years old.
Most days, I do great. My scars are just part of who I am, and my hair is back to normal. I have finally recently started to lose my weight that I gained during treatment. Other days however, I get thrown right back into it.
When I started working again after treatment, I would develop irrational fears of hurting myself. I was scared to slip on ice or something and would picture people saying, "She survived cancer!..... but broke her hip" I had a panic attack the morning of our first family vacation and we almost canceled. We went. My kids deserved a vacation. They deserved to enjoy themselves after the hell I put them through. I cried and spent most of the time in bed. I didn't know HOW to live again.
A few weeks ago, my irrational fear appeared again, but this time it was because it became a reality - I had a biking accident. Lying in the emergency room, I wasn't sure what the damage was yet, but I knew it was bad. Because it was a trauma, I went to a different hospital than the one where I was treated for cancer. I didn't know these people. This place did not feel like "home" like the Jewish General Hospital did. These people didn't know me and had to ask my medical history.
As the nurse gave me morphine by IV, I started to cry. I felt like I was going to pass out. I had a flashback. I tasted the morphine and it brought me back to chemotherapy. The nurse tried to calm me and assure me that the pain would subside. Unable to catch my breath and speak through the tears, I exposed my port-o-cath to her. My badge of honor. My tell-tale sign of what I had been through.
Last week I reached the four year mark of having "No Evidence of Disease". The big FIVE to officially be "Cancer Free" is less than 365 days away. Realistically though, are we ever actually free from cancer? Do we ever experience a trauma, have an ache or a pain, and do not automatically think of our cancer? Though we may became medically free from cancer, our scars are a reminder that it is always part of us.
I am learning to live my new normal. I understand that it is OK to mourn the pre-cancer Joy. Hurting myself post-cancer was such a great fear of mine, and here I am, thriving with my injuries. They are temporary.
I do not know what the future holds for my health, but I need to keep in mind that nobody does. Nobody has that super-power to see into the future.
Today, I celebrate my health. I celebrate that....
Long story short, I survived.