I’m a nurse. I’m not supposed to be a patient. I’m not supposed to get cancer. I have too much to do to add cancer and its treatment to my life. I don’t want this disease. It’s just not fair.
Have you heard or thought any of these statements? They are a few I had when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I was mad, frustrated, annoyed, agitated, and more and continue to have some these feelings today, 6 months later. But I have also learned to channel negative emotions into positive ones and move forward in my journey as I offer encouragement and inspiration to others.
It didn’t happen right away at the beginning of this journey. About a month went by before I was able to sort through my feelings and attitudes and learn how they could positively affect me and, hopefully, others. As is the case with most things worthwhile, it didn’t come easily. So how did I get to this point?
I was diagnosed 6 months after the death of my identical twin sister. I was mourning her death and teaching online nursing courses fulltime. I had completed my doctorate, having defended my project the day my sister died. Now I had to refocus my life, move on from grieving, and figure out my next steps. My mother was grieving as well as dealing with her own health issues. My emotions were all over the place.
My sister had been very helpful with our mother as we were the only children who lived close by. There was a lot going on, as always, but I was handling it and moving forward. Or so I thought. Then, my sister is gone in a matter of minutes. Life isn’t fair. I knew that, but it sure hit hard that day.
I was diagnosed when I had my annual gyn exam and mammogram. I was thankful that I went every year for this care as well as thankful that the tumor was small and found early. Neither my doctor nor I was able to feel it due to its small size. But, still, it was there, and my life changed in matter of minutes.
I had surgery: a lumpectomy and removal of four lymph nodes with only one having cancer cells. This surgery was followed by a second surgery to put a port in for chemo, bloodwork, and whatever else where access would be needed. I met with the medical oncologist to discuss treatment and set it up to begin.
I made it through the first chemo treatment with the fourth and fifth days post treatment being the worst. This remained consistent throughout the treatments. I ate small meals and drank a lot of water, following the instructions given me by my wonderful nurses. I was told I would lose my hair. My thought was so what? It’s better than losing my life. I have too much to live for to worry about hair; it will grow back. It started falling out within two weeks after my first treatment, my New Year’s gift.
I bought a wig and followed my daughter’s advice, something fun and different than my natural hair because I don’t often have the opportunity to have a hairstyle and color that I would not normally have. I bought a straight blond wig and wore it proudly; my normal hair color is dark brown. People frequently told me how much they liked me in it.
I hadn’t been a big fan of social media; I used it mainly to keep up with my grandchildren and connect with friends. I decided to share about my cancer experience. The support was phenomenal! I had a pair of cowgirl boots and wore them anytime I went in for clinic visits, whether to see the doctor, blood draws, or chemo. I asked others to wear their boots on my chemo days and send pictures. They did, and the #kickcancerbootcampaign began!
A friend had boot koozies made and sent to me. I handed them to anyone I could. The friendship, support, and prayers were amazing!
I made it through my four chemo treatments and was so ready to start radiation so I could get my life back, if possible. Then, the COVID-19 hit. Just when I thought I had a little more freedom to go and come as I please, I was told I needed to stay home and away from people. I had been working from home with my job and was used to quarantine since I was immunocompromised, but the difference now was I had to continue it or possibly lose my life. I had not come this far to have something like COVID-19 take it away. I looked for the positives and knew I was blessed that even though this pandemic was here, I was still able to work and take care of myself. I walked every day in our woods, developed a new appreciation of where I live, and enjoyed getting my appetite back.
I have a quirky sense of humor and found that it was a good way to get through some of the unpleasantness of this journey. For example, I couldn’t at first figure out why my mascara was clumping so badly on my bottom eyelashes until I took a good look and realized I had only three eyelashes, not enough to use mascara. That was the last time I put mascara on the lower lashes. When I shared this story with some friends, we all had a good laugh.
I started radiation; it’s a daily occurrence Monday through Friday until you’re done. I had 34 treatments and concluded that having some place to go everyday was a good thing. I had my outing and enjoyed seeing the staff at the hospital. I wore my cowgirl boots for every treatment. Because of the pandemic, I also wore a mask for my safety. When I arrived at the front door of the hospital, I had to have my temperature taken and answer a couple of questions. Most of the staff were familiar with me and were very supportive; they recognized the boots. I appreciated what they did daily to be sure everyone was safe including them.
One side effect of radiation is fatigue, and the doctor asked me about it each time I saw him. I rather enjoyed it because it helped me get a good night’s sleep, something I had not had for a long time. I managed to keep skin side effects at a minimum and was grateful. I had heard many horror stories and was nervous about it, following instructions and maintaining a good skin regimen were important.
The day came when I completed my last radiation treatment. I rang the bell afterward, signifying my completion of therapy. It was my second ring as I did so at my last chemo treatment. This time, I truly was finished with all my treatments. I was excited! I did a little dance and shared it on social media. I found that social media was a great way to share my story, inspire others, and gather support for this unusual and unwanted journey.
I decided that even though social distancing was the norm, I still needed to celebrate. I set up two online meetings and invited everyone I could think of to join me at one or both celebrations. The response was tremendous. I had family and friends from all over the world as well as close to home join in. It was such fun. I appreciated all the support, prayers, and love from everyone so was glad not only to celebrate but to also thank my supporters.
Cancer is typically not a journey any of us volunteer for, saying “pick me, pick me!” It can take us by surprise and throw our life in chaos in a matter of minutes. It did to me. I appreciated the comment a good friend made. She said that when she heard I had cancer, she knew cancer had come to the wrong person. My goal from here on is to live each minute, hour, day, week, month, etc., to the fullest. To enjoy them and my family and friends. Not take anything for granted. Be there for others. Share my story. Inspire and support others going through this journey. Make the most of everything. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
I could not or would not be at this point if it were not for my faith in God, and my family has been here for me every step of the way. I am blessed!
Joan Creed is a nurse in Columbia, South Carolina.