Vanessa L., one of our 2019 models in A Calendar to Live By, has a two-part blog series to share about three lessons she learned from her breast cancer diagnosis — some great thoughts for a new year! Below is part two. Thanks, Vanessa! Pictured here is Vanessa on the cover of our 2019 calendar; order yours here.
January 9th, 2017: I would be officially diagnosed with breast cancer. Invasive Ductile Carcinoma.
Those first couple of weeks were a blur. I had not yet told my children. I kept putting it off. I told myself that I wanted to know my course of treatment, but really, I was procrastinating. I was counting my blessings and being brave, but the thought of telling my children just shattered me. I felt such intense guilt because I knew that in the telling, it would change their world.
I felt like I would be robbing them of their childhood and their innocence. I struggled.
It was my Nurse Navigator (a professional who is assigned to you during your treatment, they call and check in whether you want them to or not) who helped me here.
She told me that this is not the "cancer" from my childhood memories, that time when I thought of people with the disease dying and being just horribly sick. Medicine has come a long way since then. She also told me I had a choice: I could be someone with cancer or someone fighting cancer, and I had to decide what type of survivor I was going to be – and that is who my children would see. We sat down together to tell the children that I was fighting cancer. We laid out the plan of how we were going to fight, and they joined team mom fortifying my resolve to continue to “live brave.”
Over the next month+, I had over 30 doctor appointments, two surgeries, and one minor procedure.
On the way to one of those early appointments with my husband, we were both operating on autopilot, still in shock and disbelief. To fill the awkward silence, I was reading reviewing the mail with him while he drove (looking back we probably could have used some counseling). I was already getting lots of breast cancer swag, books, information, etc. So this day, the swag included a calendar. I remember turning to him and saying, “great, a daily reminder that I have breast cancer, just what I need!"
However, I continued to read through it. I read every page of the Here For The Girls A Calendar to Live By. It's an organization to support women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 51.
And for the first time, I had a sense of peace as I sat looking at those pictures of young women, my age, who were vibrant, alive, and some even with kids – they were me!
For the first time, I knew I could actually do this! That I was going to do this, but do it my way. My way and on my terms. That was the day I took control of my journey.
I didn't really care for "hope for a cure,” I was more in the f*ck cancer camp! I was offended and insulted that I even had to deal with it, so there was no way I was going to go about this quietly. I posted on social media, I shared my story, and I wore obnoxious shirts.
In making those decisions about what type of survivor I would be, it was a decision I had to reaffirm every day. I learned that I have a choice of who I'm going to be and how I am going to be, and it impacts how others see me and engage with me.
I was not interested in those who wanted to pity me or feel sad all the time. I was fighting for my life and it was important that I surrounded myself with people who treated me like I was still alive.
It significantly impacted how my children received and responded to the news. They were on board and ready for the fight.
Lesson two: you have a choice everyday about who and what you are going to be, and that decision matters. The energy will be matched by those around you and will determine who draws near.
Because I was young and healthy, I would get chemo (as if it were a prize). Now, I was in the middle of fighting for my life. I found out I would have chemotherapy and what did I worry about? Not the loss of energy and appetite, nausea, inevitable mouth sores, or the toxic chemicals that would be pumped thru my veins (one of which is literally known as the "red devil") – I was worried about losing my hair. I cried for real! It worried me.
Now for those of you that don't know, hair is a pretty big deal in the African American community. I have rocked a ‘fro, a mohawk, two sets of dreadlocks; my hair had a personality of its own! But the idea of going bald, of not having a choice in the matter, it stressed me, it floored me. I was shook.
Two weeks before I started treatment, I shaved my head. I wanted some control at a time when I felt I had none.
Well it turned out I loved my bald head! I have been shaving it ever since! I have never worn a wig, not during treatment or any day since. That one thing that worried me the most is the thing I ended up loving. I still struggle with the worry and when I do, I just rub my head and as a reminder.
Lesson 3: worrying about something not in your control is a waste of time and energy.
July of 2017, I received my NO Evidence of Disease report from my oncologist. I was cancer free! But that is when the real work started. The Gut Work. How to pick up the pieces of my life? I needed to find my new normal at a time when nothing seemed normal.
I had to shift from surviving to living. That calendar I mentioned earlier from Here for the Girls – well, I joined their support group (I often say they saved my life). They continue to teach me how to be brave, but they also allowed me to be weak when everyone else needed me to be strong. I have made lifelong friends there.
I have since shifted from being a survivor to an advocate. That calendar I mentioned, well, now I'm
in it as Ms. February 2019! In giving back, I’m also becoming an advocate. I work closely with the organization. Unfortunately, we welcome new survivors into our group every month and each year we also say goodbye to those who passed. But, we continue to fight and live our lives, as we say, with an exclamation mark instead of a period!
I fought cancer, but all of us are fighting or going through something. I hope that you appreciate these three lessons and chose to do as I do every day: to live brave.