On a beautiful September morning, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As my husband and I stood outside the radiologist’s clinic absorbing the news, we had to make a quick decision: should we cancel the weekend trip we were about to take with friends? Our ferry was due to leave in an hour and we would have to let them know right away.
My husband said, “We can spend the weekend at home worrying about what the future holds. Or we can spend it enjoying ourselves in the Gulf Islands. No matter which option we choose, Monday — and all the realities that come with it — will arrive at the same time. I say we do what we’d normally do.”
The radiologist who broke the news had advised much the same thing. My life, he said, was about to be consumed by an entire eco-system called the B.C. Cancer Agency. Starting the next week, a universe of healthcare professionals would get into gear to make me better. Until then, I should try to put the cancer out of my mind and enjoy the promise of a beautiful weekend.
So that’s what my husband and I did, and kept on doing. The surgery, chemo and radiation all became part of our new normal. We vowed we wouldn’t let cancer define us. We’d simply continue with our life, incorporating each stage into our daily routine.
We’ve emerged from that year stronger than ever. Thanks to a regime that included walking five kilometres almost every day to yoga and exercise classes at Inspire Health, as well as taking part in a study about the potential benefits of exercise during chemo to protect the heart, I’m actually in better shape today than I was before my diagnosis. (It helped that I had long-term disability insurance that gave me the financial freedom to be off work for a year.)
I’m now cancer-free with one of the best long-term prognoses possible.
My cancer wasn’t a secret, but we didn’t make it public. At the time, we weren’t prepared to absorb everyone’s reactions or a lot of well-meaning advice. We also didn’t want the responsibility of having to keep everyone up to date about how I was doing. Silence can be so easily misinterpreted and if we didn’t send updates, we didn’t want people to think it was because I was too exhausted from throwing up during chemo when, in fact, thanks to good drugs I didn’t throw up once.
Having cancer is not a walk in the park. You often feel pretty crappy. My mother, her parents and one of my sisters died of cancer so I also know how devastating it can be. However, for me, it was manageable, and that’s the story I want to share.
I feel deep gratitude for the incredible resources we have in British Columbia and now want to join efforts to raise awareness about what is being done to help people with cancer. I am outing myself as part of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Daffodil Month because I need to pay it forward.
I’m calling my new blog “A Year of Surrender” because that’s what I did. I surrendered to the cancer diagnosis. I gave up thinking I could control everything; instead, I gave myself up to the healthcare system. I stopped defining myself by my job; my new job was to put my energy into getting better.
It’s not that I simply let cancer happen to me. The words “fight cancer” simply didn’t resonate with either my husband or me. You fight when you’re angry or scared, two emotions we weren’t feeling. Nor did we want such an emotionally intense response. Having cancer is intense enough.
Our word was more like “determined.” Every step of the way we said we’d deal with what happened when it happened and not expend much energy worrying about it beforehand. A weekend in the Gulf Islands was the perfect opportunity to start putting our theory into practice.
Martha Perkins is the editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Courier and former editor of the Bowen Island Undercurrent and Westender. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.