It has been 4,015 days -– give or take an extra leap year day or two. And yet the memory is as vivid as if it were yesterday, not 11 years ago.
On February 6, 2003, I began the first day of my journey as a breast cancer survivor. As I lay in the intensive care unit, the sounds of machines monitoring my surgical recovery, nurses whisked in like attending angels to ease my pain, pointing to a happy face (and sad face) chart asking how badly it hurt.
Every cancer patient has a different answer to that question. The physical pain can be eased with powerful drugs, but the emotional pain can vary. Everything from, “Did I make the right choices?” to the fear of what lies ahead.
My steps as a survivor have been a journey I’ve shared with women who have also left the place called “normal” upon hearing the words, “You have cancer.” Perhaps on this 4,015th day of my being breast cancer-free, these thoughts and insights may ease someone’s pain today.
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-- Don’t panic. You may feel rushed to make a decision about medical choices, but take time to research your options. In the book, "Take Charge of Your Breast Cancer, a guide to getting the best treatment," Dr. John Link recommends you become your best advocate. Demystify the disease through reading and research and regain a feeling of control. If at first this feels too overwhelming, ask a friend or family member to do the “legwork” for you. There are myriad ways to find the path that is just right for you.
-- Get a second opinion. It is not easy to tell your doctor you’ll seek a second opinion, but take the extra time to seek other advice. For peace of mind, another opinion (or even more) can either confirm or provide a new pathway. With my second opinion I learned of reconstructive surgery that could be performed in tandem with my mastectomy. It meant traveling to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance from the Tri-Cities, but it was the right choice for me.
-- Create a medical notebook. For every medical appointment, carry a three-ring notebook with your pertinent information: medical history, medications and insurance. Have extra copies that can be attached to the doctor’s or the hospital’s standard form. Consider adding family members’ contact information, as well as the telephone and fax numbers of your medical community. Also, request the medical records from each appointment or procedure after they have been transcribed. Add these to your notebook and read them carefully. I discovered an oversight by reading one of the reports.
-- Designate a contact person. People mean well, but often a cancer patient is barraged with telephone calls and emails. It can be exhausting retelling one’s story or explaining medical decisions. Ask a family member or close friend to be the liaison who will forward information about your health to others. This person can also be the one who picks up and delivers friends’ meals to the house while you are recuperating.
-- Develop a healthy lifestyle. The best book I can recommend is "Anticancer: A New Way of Life." Author Dr. David Servan-Schreiber explains what inhibits and makes cancer cells thrive, recommending ways to slow and prevent cancer. I have followed a holistic approach after surgery, such as eating “closer to the earth”, taking vitamins and supplements, reducing stress and incorporating exercise, all helpful for the immune system. It has served me well for the past 11 years.
-- Include faith. I believe God is the Great Physician and an integral part in the healing and ongoing health of a cancer survivor. Prayer and meditation soothes the human spirit, giving strength for the journey. I am so thankful to have had God on my medical team.
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s hard to imagine your life 4,015 days from now. But take one day at a time, trusting your heart and God’s leading when decisions need to be made.
Trust me. He can take away the hurt.