Cancer doesn’t build character, it exposes it
Portland's gathering for National Cancer Survivors Day is an afternoon of celebration, networking and inspiration for individuals living beyond a cancer diagnosis, their families, friends and health care providers. It is always held the first Sunday in June. This year, it will be held at the Montgomery Park Atrium on Sunday, June 5, 2016 from 2-4 p.m.
Legacy Cancer Institute celebrates survivors everyday, but in honor of this holiday that is so near and dear to us, we are featuring one of our fabulous survivors who was treated at Legacy Cancer Institute.
Shana's cancer journey began at 10:47 p.m. on June 4, 2015. One year and one day later, she is celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day cancer-free.
On a night like any other, Shana was getting ready for bed and came across what felt like hard knot on her chest that had not been there the day before. She poked it and it didn’t hurt, felt the other side and there was nothing there.
“I immediately screamed for my husband who is an oncology massage therapist,” said Shana. “I was 39 and in the best shape of my life – I had been a vegan for 27 years and was running about four miles a day, there was no way it could be cancer. I thought I had maybe pulled a muscle, or developed a cyst.”
Taking her health seriously, she scheduled an appointment with her primary care physician who immediately sent her for diagnostic testing. After undergoing a mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy, she was diagnosed with triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma.
She immediately started chemotherapy and the side effects quickly followed – nausea, incredible fatigue, excruciating hand and foot pain, neuropathy, bone pain, chemo brain, ulcerations and hot flashes.
“I had previously worked in the lab at a cancer research hospital and thought I knew about cancer but it’s completely different when you are the patient,” explained Shana.
After undergoing nine months of treatment, which included the full gamut of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, she was declared “cancer free,” a label that doesn’t yet feel real.
“Everyone tells you to look forward to the end of treatment because you get to move on, resume normal-ish life, look ahead. When treatment ends, you feel like you’ve been dropped off a cliff,” Shana stated bluntly. “You follow a very regimented routine and are able to see your caregivers weekly, some daily, which is oddly comforting because you are actively doing something about the cancer. One I graduated from active treatment, I felt strangely lost and rudderless."
To combat that feeling, Shana proactively sought out fellow fighters and survivors. She found community and advice through a group called the Young Survivors Coalition (YSC), a support and networking group for young women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Pink Phoenix, the country’s first dragon boat team comprised solely of breast cancer survivors.
“When my neighbor, who is a three time cancer survivor, heard that I had cancer she immediately pointed me in the direction of Pink Phoenix. She had been on the team for more than 10 years,” said Shana. “This is a club of strong, positive, fun, inspirational athletes. These are 60, 70, 80 and even 90-year-old women who kick my butt! They are rad, and prove that cancer doesn’t have to define you. Come watch us race June 11th & 12th!”
Having just graduated to “survivorship” three months ago, Shana’s advice to anyone who has been newly diagnosed is:
It takes a village/Find your tribe. “It would have been nearly impossible to survive this last year without my kind and patient husband, family and friends, near and far, and the amazing women I met who were also in battle. Accept help. You’ll need it. Want to support a friend, neighbor, coworker who has just been diagnosed? Chip in for a cleaning service - cancer patients are often too weak to do even small, light tasks. Coordinate healthy, simple foods, or veggies fresh from your garden, cleaned, chopped and ready for use. I did not expect to be so debilitated, and we really relied on our neighbors and friends."
Don’t be afraid to get emotional support and do it from the outset. “Your body goes through a type of trauma and I believe your body and mind holds onto those things and they come out in weird ways. It really helps to talk to someone,” recommended Shana. “I wish I’d added this to my care team in the very beginning."
Seek out non-traditional treatments. Shana recalled, “Legacy did a great job of immediately setting me up with the Cancer Healing Center, which supports both mind and body throughout the entire process. Acupuncture, herbal remedies and other Eastern medicine should be standard issue as part of an integrated survival plan”.
Be prepared to feel scared when your treatment is over. “Battling cancer is like a ratty, full-time job with no benefits. It’s always on your mind and calendar. Your hair will grow back, you and everyone around you will be sick of thinking about, talking about cancer. Your hair will grow back, and people will assume you are done, all better, which feels hurtful and confusing when you are still struggling with side effects and medical appointments. Having an external support system is so critical.”
Trust your care team. “Dr. Google didn’t go to medical school,” joked Shana.
Laughter is the best medicine. “My husband and I asked our family and friends to send us their favorite comedy shows, movies and clips. It was important for us to wind our days down laughing instead of worrying.”
As a relatively new member of the “cancer survivor club”, Shana is looking forward to summer in Portland, to having the energy to garden, to writing back to all the people who sent cards and letters and packages and love. She hasn’t had her “cancer epiphany” yet, but is looking forward to talking about her cancer in the past tense.
“A wise friend told me that 'cancer doesn’t build character, it exposes it' and I have witnessed that firsthand through Pink Phoenix and my fellow young cancer survivors,” Shana reflected. “The road to recovery is rutted and rough. You can look down at the mud puddles and slime (and some days you will), or to the horizon where you are likely to find a breathtaking scene, a reason to keep going.”
For media related questions, please contact Megan Deisler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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June 3, 2016