Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from a woman in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to sign up for the newsletter. Click here to sign up for the Reckon Women Facebook page.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October’s essays will all be from breast cancer warriors, survivors and thrivers.
By Bisa Myles
I anxiously waited for seven months, praying to hear two words, “cancer-free.” I thought that I would feel this immediate relief that my cancer journey was over. But when I walked out of the oncologist office with my survivorship plan in hand, I still felt afraid and alone.
I was 42 years old, raising three teenage girls. They wanted me to tell them that I would be around to see them graduate high school. I told them yes with confidence, but deep down inside, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t make plans that far in advance.
The survivorship plan I was given included my doctor’s appointments for the next five years and some of the side effects I might experience. The one side effect that was missing from the list was the anxiety and fear you experience after having had cancer. The only real advice I was given was to find my “new normal.”
I had heard the term before. But what does that mean? I didn’t want to a new normal. My old life wasn’t always perfect, but I knew what to expect. I searched online to see how other women found their new normal.
Some women quit their jobs and moved out of the country. Others started a new business and wrote a book. I tried all of these things, but nothing made the day-to-day anxiety go away.
The fear of a recurrence rolled around in my head every moment of the day. I couldn’t think about anything else. I was afraid to start anything new for fear of cancer coming back. I didn’t want to schedule any vacations too far in the future.
Everything was different, and it was never going to be the same. I didn’t feel the same. Everyday tasks seemed pointless. I used to think I was a good listener. No matter how trivial the conversation, I felt obligated to sit and listen. Now listening to people’s complaints about fictional characters on TV or missing a red light felt ridiculous.
We all know you will lose your hair and experience weight gain from the steroids or weight loss from loss of appetite while on chemo, but no one talks about some of the other side effects. You can get lymphedema, which causes swelling and numbness in your arms and chest. And there’s the fatigue and chemo brain. I experienced all three of these. The only real cure for it is time.
One day I was scanning through Instagram and saw a post about a woman who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I commented about how cool I thought it was, and she replied and told me that she was organizing a trip of 20 women in 2019.
I had never thought about hiking any mountain before. Although the trip was a year and a half away, I was only a year after finishing treatment. There is no way that my doctors would agree to something like this, I thought. Another concern after having radiation is that the treatment can damage your lungs and heart. Hiking 19,000 ft elevation could be dangerous.
I waited until there were only a few spots left to claim before I signed up. Did I mention that I had never hiked before? I trained for over a year, and during that time stopped obsessing over having a reoccurrence. My main focus was staying healthy to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. In March 2019, I flew to Tanzania and spent five days hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.
After the trip, I decided to turn my attention to something else – self-care. We’ve all heard the flight attendant say you have to put on your life vest before putting one on the child seated next to you. This was harder to do than I imagined. I thought I took care of myself. I bought myself things, I treated myself to nice dinners occasionally, and I took trips by myself. But after having cancer, I realized that I never really practiced self-care.
I realized that self-care doesn’t have to be big and extravagant. It could just be taking a walk alone in the middle of the day, having lunch with a friend, or taking the time to write in your journal.
Eventually I realized that some good changes come from fighting cancer. I made it a point to make more quality time with my friends. I have a new appreciation for life and make a point to live each day to the fullest.
Three things that helped me get through it all were practicing daily mediation, private therapy, and support groups. Some of these things that I continue to do four years later. It is crucial to connect with other survivors who have gone through the same thing.
When I was battling breast cancer, I would cringe when people would call me strong. I didn’t feel strong, and it was not like I had a choice. But after the first two years, I found the courage that everyone said I had. And all of these things became part of my new normal.
Bisa Myles lives in Northwest Indiana and loves to travel and write. She is a blogger at www.mylestotravel.com.