My father always said, "A positive attitude is everything in life, Kingsley."
Whether I learned that from him or it was part of our genetic disposition, I don't know. That is just the way I have always approached life.
There was no pain, it was just time for a routine mammogram. So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2005, it was surreal. I thought a positive attitude protected me from cancer — maybe not heart disease or arthritis, but certainly cancer. In my mind, the typical cancer patient was someone who was emotionally closed, doesn't share and had a gloomy "Eeyore" the donkey outlook on life.
Whether or not I was the typical patient, my journey into the world of breast cancer treatment and facing my own mortality began. Life changed.
My first step was meeting with the breast cancer educator at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. We reviewed different treatment scenarios that might be presented once all the test results were in.
I contacted the Community Breast Health Project to continue my education and connect with other women with breast cancer.
Then we met with the surgeon, the oncologist and the radiation oncologist and mapped out a treatment plan.
While I was undergoing treatment I was in "warrior mode." You marshal all your energy and your support network to fight the disease. A legion of friends and family made sure I was never alone at any appointments or treatments. I joined the "Living Strong, Living Well" exercise program at the YMCA to combat the fatigue from treatment. The wonderful medical professionals (my chemo pod) whom I saw regularly had me and my body covered.
An oncology or radiation treatment center might seem depressing from afar. For me it was a place where we were fighting together. Like Lamaze classes, these are places to bond with people you didn't know before, but with whom you share a life-changing experience.
Yet when my treatment ended in November, I was surprised to learn that my physical journey was not over and that my emotional journey had just begun. Many experts say it takes a year to recover physically from treatment. Some side effects could be permanent, I was told.
It was time to reclaim my life, to rebuild my body and stamina. But the realization that I had no control over whether the cancer would return was overwhelming.
While friends and family were celebrating the end of treatment, a sense of vulnerability replaced my warrior, and a fear of recurrence haunted me. My body was no longer protected by the treatment. My "chemo pod" rightly went on to treat others. To put it in the vernacular, I felt as if I was standing buck naked in a field. The black cloud that hovered over me was invisible to those so happy about the end of my treatments.
Ultimately, and with time, I opted to put my energy into areas where I did have control. I drew upon the positive attitude ingrained in my by my father, or genetics. I paid more attention to a healthy diet and exercise.
And — important to my recovery — I found value in the experience.
I am thankful now for each day. I learned that all I have for certain is today.
To see change evolve out of my experience will be another reward. The Community Breast Health Project has started a new program, "Live a Life You Love," for people living with cancer. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation will add a "Wellness Visit" at the close of treatment, where a breast cancer educator will acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead, explore strategies for the next phase, identify community resources that could be helpful and develop a wellness plan.
The addition of these options to the incredible resources this community has for women undergoing treatment for or recovering from breast cancer will reinforce that those who helped you during treatment continue to wish you well.
[Published in the July 5, 2006 issue of the Palo Alto Weekly]
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