Why I’m Grateful I Had Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is never good news, and when I got my diagnosis in April of 2020, the timing was especially awkward. I had had my first ever mammogram right when the city was shutting down for the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. If I hadn’t already had it scheduled, there’s a good chance I would have postponed it. If I had, things could have been much worse than they were.

I’m Grateful for an “Easy” Cancer

I was lucky, though cancer is likewise never lucky. The cancer was spotted by a diligent radiologist using a great deal of magnification. Some tiny, white flecks of calcification were clustered in the upper/outer region of my right boob. Could be nothing, they said, or it could indicate very early cancer. There was no tumor, no lump, not really much to see on the scan, apart from some tiny, white specks.

I was lucky that it was detected so early, and that after a few awkward biopsies the cancer was deemed early stage, low-grade, slow-growing, and invasive but non-metastatic. The invasive cancer was a whopping 1.1 mm, and there were a couple of nearby instances of precancerous ductal carcinomas.

I was angry and anxious, but not fearful of this particular cancer. It wasn’t going to end my life, I just had to get through the ordeal of cancer treatments during a pandemic. After being on the sidelines for much worse cancers with my grandmother and both of my parents, this felt like a (very annoying) walk in the park.

I’m Grateful for Putting My Health First

I was already starting to get my diet and exercise in order before my diagnosis, but the cancer really lit a fire. I began looking at my daily walks as lifesaving. I got more vigilant about my workout schedule, and I started cooking healthy food for every meal. I took up morning meditation, yoga, and journaling.

I’ve gone through periods of health and fitness before, but my healthy habits tend to dissolve in the face of stress and life events. In this case, the opposite happened. I don’t know if it was my looming 50th birthday or the cancer diagnosis or just being fed up with being overweight and feeling like crap, but something shifted for me, and my health became my top priority.

“What would you do if taking care of your body was your most important job?” This is a question I have asked myself–and sometimes others–repeatedly since my cancer diagnosis. I realized that I had been putting my health on the bottom of my to-do list for years, and when I put it at the top I made different choices.

Putting my health first means that I put healthy foods into my body, and I avoid the ones that I have come to learn promote cancer or otherwise degrade my health. It means I carve out time for exercise even when I’m busy or don’t feel like it. It means I’m diligent about medical checks and followups and vaccines. It means I work with a holistic ND to complement my conventional cancer treatments.

I’m Grateful for Resilience Practice

The last two years have reminded me that I have great reserves of resilience. I may have appeared to be putting on a brave face, but really I have been through some stuff and I know how to bounce back.

My grandma’s death from cancer was an early test of my resilience. She was my primary caregiver for the first twelve years of my life. After a few years of horrific cancer treatments, surgeries, and a brief remission, she died a week after my twelfth birthday. That loss was a defining moment for me. I felt like I wouldn’t survive it, and then I did. That’s how you build resilience, by getting through hard things.

I went through two surgeries and a month of radiation treatments for my breast cancer. Another way I got lucky was that there was no reason to do chemo for such an early, non-metastatic cancer. Still, surgeries and radiation in the middle of a global pandemic are stressful and difficult, both physically and emotionally.

The only way to get through stressful and difficult things is to get through them. You endure the things you’d rather not endure and come out the other side with a few new scars and a bit of nerve damage. And then you realize you’re still here, and you move on.

I’m Grateful for a New Relationship with Alcohol

Alcohol causes breast cancer. Science has known this since the 1980s, but the alcohol industry downplays the connection at every opportunity. The fact is, alcohol changes the way your body handles estrogen, which can trigger cancer in breast tissue. The more you drink, the higher the risk of developing cancer. My cancer was estrogen-receptor-positive, which means it was likely fueled by drinking. Alcohol also causes multiple other forms of cancer, including the esophageal cancer that ultimately killed my dad at the age of 58.

Knowing all of this, there’s no way I can go back to the way I used to drink, which was daily and with abandon. The best choice would be to stop drinking altogether and forever, but I’m still attached to the rituals of drinking and the pleasant effects of intoxication.

Now I only drink on rare occasions. In the past year there have been about 6-8 weekends when I allowed myself to drink alcohol, and I have otherwise embraced teetotaling. I drink on vacation, and allow myself other rare exceptions to sobriety.

This is another aspect of putting my health first, and the more I prioritize healthy living, the less I will drink. My intention is to drink even less over the coming year. Maybe one day I will drink so infrequently that I can say I don’t drink. But not yet.

I’m Grateful to Be Cancer-Free

After the bad news of the initial diagnosis and the subsequent disappointment of finding more precancerous growths, everything was good news. When I had my lumpectomy, the margins were clear of cancer. The lymph node biopsy came back negative. As far as it is possible to determine, the cancer had been entirely removed.

Radiation treatments were tedious but easy, and I didn’t have any bad side effects. My followup mammograms revealed some new speckles of calcification which meant another stressful biopsy, but the “atypia” (abnormal cells) they found were consistent with exposure to radiation, and not cancerous. Go figure.

I don’t use the word “remission,” because as far as I’m concerned I’m done with breast cancer. It could come back, but one of my oncologists told me that the best way to prevent a recurrence is to keep up the weight loss and healthy living, so that’s what I intend to do.

I can’t predict what the future may hold, but I can do my best to take care of myself and to appreciate the gifts that come along with every difficult or unwanted experience.

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