I tend to be the kind of person who works best with incremental bench marks, little goals with little rewards. Whether it’s running (a new piece of gear for following the first part of a training plan) or housework (can’t check email until completing an action on my to-do list), the breaks in the mundane certainly help the time pass more quickly.
And so this week, I celebrate one year cancer free. Last year on March 13, I headed into the hospital to have any remaining cancer removed from my breast, and I came home with the assurance that there was no cancer lingering in my body.
As with other areas in my life, this one year mark is a small goal counting down to a bigger, more substantial goal. For most women following breast cancer treatment, the five year mark is a big deal. Statistically, if you make it to five years with no evidence of disease, you are considered cured. Triple negative breast cancer is much nastier and more aggressive, and in general, that’s not good. But since it’s so nasty, it tends to rear its ugly head much more quickly. So this would be one of the few times when those of us in the triple negative club can count ourselves lucky– three years is our critical time point. If it’s coming back, it’s not waiting five years. So we only have to make it three years before taking a big, deep breath– I’m a third of the way there.
Since the first half of my “first year” was consumed with surgical appointments, I didn’t spend much time tracking my progress towards the first benchmark. But the second half? That has been harder. They spend so much time telling you what to expect with chemo, how to deal with post-surgery pain and restrictions. I even went to a “survivorship” appointment, where one would expect to learn what it means to be a breast cancer survivor. Still, I was unprepared for how much more little aches and pains worry me, how much more I wonder if this will be my last time doing something. During treatment, I think I’d shut down my emotions so that I didn’t even consider my mortality for a second. With the return of emotions, I’m finding that I’m dealing with things that I apparently put on the back burner a year and a half ago.
And yet, with the first benchmark in the path towards the word “cure,” I’m hopeful that I’ve dealt with the bulk of those stored up emotions, ready to emerge and find a way to be productive with all that I’ve learned and gone through. In the coming weeks, I hope to share some more about the projects I’ve been working on lately. A grant review session, another feature in a publication, and an online video segment… I’m not quite there yet, but I feel like after a year, I’m starting to find a way to take what can only be described as bitter irony– a PhD breast cancer researcher diagnosed with breast cancer– to make a difference to other women walking the same path.