I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the Fall of 2013. The news was shocking and sobering, especially considering I knew very few people who thrived with it. Scared beyond comprehension, filled with sleepless nights and worries dancing through my head, I thought I knew what that diagnosis meant. At the same time, publicity ramped up for Disney’s “Frozen,” but I didn’t pay attention. The movie opened Thanksgiving weekend and after the holidays, the world knew it was not only a box office hit, but the key to a young girl’s heart. I didn’t realize, it would be to mine, as well.
As the world was singing “Do you Want to Build a Snowman, ” I was anxiously awaiting my first set of scans after being diagnosed. My mind was filled with wildly ranging thoughts:
Was this the calm before the storm? Would the results show tremendous growth and I would only have a few months or years left?
If so, would my child really know me? Should we tell him or not?
Will my new treatments debilitate me? Will I feel like myself? Will I be myself?
With great luck, blessings and positive vibes, I received some good news mid-January. The cancer was stable. All things considering, it was the best news we could receive. I was thankful that my low-volume, oligometastatsis, stage IV metastatic disease didn’t rage its ugly head. However, the truth about stage IV disease is that the cancer has traveled through my blood and could be lurking in other places. My doctors can’t be sure it will not grow again. Science doesn’t really know. And in many cases, cancer will resist drugs after working well for a time period. So while I was relieved that the cancer hadn’t spread and happy to stay on my current treatment because the side effects were minimal, I felt empty.
What does this mean? Just because my cancer isn’t growing now, what if it returns? Do I jump into my old life now that we better understand how to handle my cancer today? But how can I do that knowing I need to take care of myself differently? Life no longer has to be put on hold assessing my state of health, so it was about to get back to normal. Yet, what was normal?
Normal was me prioritizing work or graduate school near the top of my list.
Normal was me trying to jam pack my days with family, friends, acquaintances, school, work and the list making goes on…
Normal was seldom exercising, eating a ton of packaged goods and drinking caffeine to keep me awake through the day.
Normal was me trying to be perfect in all of my big roles: superstar employee, top of the list graduate student, incredibly supportive wife and a hands-on mother.
After all the reading and inquiring about plant-based eating and optimal wellness those first few months after the stage IV diagnosis, I knew I couldn’t get back to that stressful lifestyle. I often thought: how do I figure out the new normal? Will the dark cloud of cancer always loom over my life? The first few weeks after the good news, I was living off the high, but still wondering what was next for me. One Saturday afternoon, I took my then five-year-old to see “Frozen.” While the movie theater was packed with a choir of families decked in Frozen-mania swag, it hit me. Elsa, who hid her true identity, finally ran free dancing up the mountains in blizzard conditions, allowing the force of nature to take over resulting in a crystallized winter wonderland. I realized I, too, had to “Let it Go.”
My body was shaking, holding back tears. The easiest way for me to deal with my new normal was to let go of my old expectations and embrace what was in front of me right now. Take the life I have with cancer and make it the life I want it to be.
So now I’ve used Idina Menzel’s rendition as my theme song. Rather than jump back into my old stressful habits, I’m exploring the potential of opportunities in front of me and handling them with different tools. I now prioritize exercise and down-time. I’m writing more and enjoying speaking engagements on subjects I love: health and wellness. I’m involved in my son’s classroom and school. And I still love and honor my husband as my true Prince Charming. Do I worry of the cancer returning? Of course, but I try to give myself some time to accept each appointment milestone or setback, then move forward. I never wanted to be defined as a Caryn with cancer, but maybe all of us survivors can be seen as royalty in a kingdom of wellness, compassion and love. Because that is what my new normal is focused on.
How have you dealt with hardship and embraced change?