Breast cancer lesson 159: Choose to thrive not just ‘survive’ after breast cancer

Before swallowing a textbook on all things breast cancer, I thought that if you were treated successfully, you could be cured. I thought that at the end of my active treatment journey, I, too, would be another woman in ‘remission’. Like a lot of things in the English language, however, nothing is quite as simple as it first appears.

Truth is, while the headlines will talk of ‘cures’ and people being ‘all clear’, you are not likely to hear these terms in an oncologist’s office. To be cured means there is no way breast cancer will come back. Unlike some other cancers, breast cancer can come back at any time in the future. Yes, the risk of it returning does diminish over time and yes, I may be cured, but as there is absolutely no guarantee, it is not a word you will ever hear me use.

Remission is also a word that won’t me making an appearance in my post-treatment life. While associated with lots of cancers, it isn’t often applied to breast cancer. Instead, people tend to use the term NED, which is short for ‘no evidence of disease’. As someone who loves a good bit of evidence-based thinking, if the evidence isn’t there, I plan to live my life without a cancerous backdrop. I will pop a pill every day (when they prescribe it to me) for the next ten years and will remember just how far I’ve come and how lucky I am, but I won’t let it control me (let’s hope the side effects are kind). I do not fear the future. I say, bring it on!

People ask me, do I think it will come back? In all honesty, I have no idea. (I didn’t think I’d get it in the first place.) All I know is, if it does come back, it doesn’t mean the end of the story.

Some people may get a local recurrence, which means the cancer has returned to the chest/breast area of the affected side. Local recurrence is treatable.

Some people may get a regional recurrence, which means the cancer has spread past the breast and the armpit lymph nodes into tissues and other lymph nodes. Regional recurrence is treatable.

Some people may get a new primary diagnosis in the opposite breast. This would be treated as a new cancer, and is treatable.

Some people may get secondary cancer, which is when the breast cancer cells spread beyond the breast to a distant part of the body (such as bones, liver and lungs). Secondaries can be controlled and treated, but will never go away.

And, some people shut the door on cancer forever. Let’s hope I fall into this rather exciting category.

My plan? Be breast aware (I have signed up to CoppaFeel’s free monthly texts), exercise more (the link between exercise and cancer is indisputable), never reschedule a hospital appointment again (I moved my biopsy because I had a meeting) and squeeze out every last little drop of happiness from every day for the rest of my life. Then, if I ever have to hear those words again, I will be ready.

As I write this today, I am not just NED, however. Cancer has changed me – and I don’t just mean my hairstyle. So much so that I have established my own set of life guidelines, or commandments. These are the things I want to remember as life returns to its new version of normal. This may sound a little odd, but by posting them here, I hope I will always be reminded of the things that matter, when first world problems creep back in. Here goes:

1) Be true to myself – and be myself: We often spend a lot of time trying to disguise the things that make us who we are. Yes, I like the X Factor and cake and yes, I will probably never enjoy an intensely political debate, but that’s because I’m me, not someone else. I vow to celebrate my own likes and dislikes – and the preferences of others.

2) Run my own race: I must set the pace in my own life and compete only with myself.

3) Worry when it matters – and let it go: If I can do something to eliminate a problem, I will. If I can’t, worrying about it won’t make a difference. This is going to be tough.

4) Be present and enjoy the process: No more wishing my life away. Today is all we know we have. I want to enjoy it – and reflect on it.

5) Be patient: Sometimes the best course (and often the hardest course) of action is to let things happen and not force an issue. I vow to walk before I try to run.

6) Just do it (no excuses): I have a mug that says: ‘don’t put off to tomorrow something you can put off for life’. I am a master procrastinator at times and I want to make every moment count. Start the day with the hardest job and it will get easier. And, good and done is better than perfect and not done.

7) Put your oxygen mask on first: You are not qualified to help others unless you first help yourself. I promise to look after myself properly. That includes putting on more face cream!

8) Use it – and enjoy it: How many of your possessions are reserved for best? No more. I intend to make the most of what I own. Otherwise, why own it?

9) Live to give: I promise to be kind and be grateful.

10) Find a place for everything: You can be tidier if your belongings have a home that isn’t the kitchen table!

11) Fix it – identify that problem: No more generalising for me. If the skin is burnt, it doesn’t mean the meal is ruined (metaphorically speaking).

12) Do the right thing: Apply this filter to every decision and I believe I will be a better person.

13) Exercise restraint: I want to be strong enough to buy a bar of chocolate and eat only a few squares (provided I am not hungry of course).

14) Be reliable: I will keep my promises – and make more promises.

15) Be prepared: I won’t cook without an apron and bake in my running kit again!

16) Remember what’s important: What would I want my gravestone to say?

17) Be aware: You won’t know whether you need to lose a few pounds unless you weigh yourself.

18) See the brighter side: Think positive and the world will fall in line.

19) Think it through: I vow to weigh up a task based on how important it is and give it the time and energy it deserves. Less is often more.

20) Dare to dream, prepare to learn: I will take risks, safe in the knowledge that all I may get to take from them is a learning.

If you were given the chance to start again (I still liken chemo to rather odd form of rebirth), what would you resolve to do – or do differently?

I want to grow back as a better version of me and thrive in this next chapter. Now you know the inner workings of my mind, you can hold me to it!