Last month I celebrated a milestone — my five-year cancer-free date. I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) in September 2016 and started chemotherapy that October. Chemo lasted through March 2017, followed by radiation treatments. My final radiation treatment was at the end of April 2017. According to my oncologist, five years is the amount of time specified for being in the clear. I know that doesn't necessarily mean the cancer won't come back, but it's probable that the chemotherapy and radiation did its job and that recurrence is very small.
So for five years I've been trying not to focus on this, focusing instead on living, especially healthy living, which, as a bit of a sugar and junk food fiend has been difficult. All the while, that throbbing question mark was in my head.
One thing that troubled me while I was waiting to hit the desired five-year cancer-free mark, was that with TNBC, chemo seems to be the only surefire treatment. There were no follow-up pills or shots to make me feel like I was still doing something to prevent the cancer from returning. That's good and bad. I hate taking medications. They seem to always cause another health issue, but my mind kept drifting to thoughts of going through the whole treatment process again. It didn't help that a port was kept in my chest for two years, just in case.
To keep myself distracted, I started a novel through National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual creative writing event in which writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. The novel I worked on was actually created from outtake scenes that didn't work in a novel I started with Nano the year before. I didn't want to write about anything heavy. (It so happens a character in the original novel died from breast cancer—not exactly what I wanted to think about at the time.) I used the out-of-place, humorous scenes to build a new story. I was in the second month of chemo as I toiled to meet the 1,667 words a day, fighting the exhaustion the chemo drugs caused. It was the first time I worked on a novel to the bitter (or, rather, satisfying) end.
In addition to having a work-in-progress to take my mind off of cancer, I think my real saving grace was attitude. I couldn't afford to feel sorry for myself. With that in mind, I tried to be careful about who I shared this experience with. Some people can be such downers. I remember one well-meaning person told me about how a friend of hers lost both breasts to cancer (it wasn't true, it turns out—but what a thing to tell me.) So for the most part, I kept my diagnosis to myself and didn't join any cancer support groups until after chemo was over. It was a good decision for me because the triple negative group I eventually joined might have terrified me. So many of their experiences were dreadful, while I sailed through. I believe going in with an ignorance-is-bliss attitude turned out to be the right thing for me. Even though I had researched my cancer and knew what could/would happen, keeping a positive mindset definitely helped me. I had very few side effects. Every morning I did a visualization meditation from You Tube that helped me view the chemo drugs as something to help heal my cells, instead of something toxic. It also helped that my oncologist started me out slow and eased me into treatment. I continued with meditation, continued eating well, and maintained my yoga and meditation practice.
Getting cancer can be frightening because it reminds you of your mortality, and that life is short. Yes, it made me realize my time on earth, at least at this level, is finite, but it has helped me focus on what is important, how I spend my time, and who I spend my time with. It's made me appreciate things that I have, the people in my life, and to focus on gratitude. I'm here. I made it through. And now I'm using that same attitude with the querying process. I went through the exhausting process of rewrites and editing. I completed the novel. And now I'm waiting for another great milestone.