About a year after I finished chemotherapy for my rare neuroendocrine colon cancer, I bought myself a t-shirt that reads, “We don’t know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice we have.” It said all I needed to say — to myself, and to those who crossed my path.
We all face challenges in our lives that serve as tests of what we can handle. What we do with those challenges can make us stronger or break us. I’ve always been determined to rise up after I fall. But it’s rarely easy and often doesn’t happen right away. I have learned to give myself grace in finding it and congratulate myself when I put it into practice.
After two-plus years of being NED (no evidence of disease), and continuously hoping for many more, I find myself in a different place with my relationship to cancer. I’ve begun to realize that there are many phases of resiliency as a cancer patient and survivor. Through each phase, you have to dig deep to find the strength to keep going. The goal is always to push through the hardship to get to a place of peace.
Phase 1: The fear there’s something wrong
I knew something wasn’t right with my body when I made my first colonoscopy appointment. I had some symptoms that I put off dealing with for a few months. It took a lot of courage for me to make that appointment to find out if I was OK or not OK. If you ask a question, you have to be ready to hear the answer.
Phase 2: The confirmation there’s something wrong
While I was not surprised hearing the words, “you likely have cancer,” I was shocked. I went to the car with my husband who was also in shock, got back to our house, and sat for several hours digesting what my fate might be. Despite my terror of what was next, I continued to work, eat, sleep, take care of my family … function.
Phase 3: The process of addressing the thing that’s wrong
After the shock wore off, resiliency took over, and I sprang into action. The only control I had over the moment was to create a plan to move the moment along. I researched the disease, identified the cancer hospital I thought would be best for me, applied for admission and waited. I waited several days to hear from them. I waited several weeks for my first appointment. I’m not sure the waiting is indeed the hardest part — but it certainly isn’t easy.
Phase 4: The battle begins
Appointments are made, tests are done. You wait for results and people whom you’ve never met before to decide your fate. Initial conversations steered me towards surgery and radiation. But when a single cancer-filled lymph node and diagnosis of a rare neuroendocrine cancer was relayed, my regimen turned into four months of chemotherapy. Resiliency allowed me to face the future head on, and believe that not only could I handle it, but I would prosper in the end.
Phase 5: The battle takes its toll
I did not read too much about what side effects might be because I didn’t want to make assumptions of how my body was going to react. But as it turned out, chemotherapy gutted me. Low white blood cell counts, constant nausea and severe constipation, physical weakness, hair loss, humanity lost. My chemo took place during the pandemic. I had to be very careful to keep myself healthy which meant contact with everyone, including my family, was extremely limited. It was the darkest time of my life. But I kept my eye on the prize. I pushed through the pain because I wanted to live.
Phase 6: The phoenix begins to rise
When chemo was over, I considered myself a warrior. But it took every sliver of strength I had to go in for each follow-up CT scan. It took even more gumption to request my test results before my oncology appointments to read through every line. I was in constant terror of recurrence. And after several months, one scan confirmed my biggest fear: a metastasis in my lung which led me back into surgical battle. Here we went again. Appointments, biopsies, surgery, recovery. Resilience.
Phase 7: The elation and fear in NED status
I’ve been NED for a little over two years now. Where I was once a cancer patient, I am now a survivor. I often fear that my title will revert to patient at some point, so I spend every day reminding myself of what once was, and that every moment I’m not a cancer patient should be spent seeking joy.
I didn’t make a new year’s resolution this year (I never really do), but I did decide on a mantra: “no bad days.” When I start to feel sad or stressed, I say these words out loud. Not every day is going to be great. But my resiliency to fear less, live more, and believe that if I have to fight cancer again, I’ll find the strength I need helps me fulfill that mantra. Because we don’t know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice we have.
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