A woman with her career as her top priority is diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2001 age 28.
Frances was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 at age 28. Married over just two and a half years to David, she was at the beginning of a demanding career and looking forward to starting a family. Her top priority was managing her career demands. Breast cancer was an inconvenience that she could not afford.
With the start of active treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, Frances’ priorities quickly changed. She learned how to relate to herself as a precious commodity – to set healthier boundaries and to say “No” when necessary. She experienced the blessings of a profoundly supportive spouse, family and friends. And she also learned that even the most well-meaning friends and family view breast cancer from a naïve perspective. She learned that each patient becomes both her own advocate as well as an educator about this illness to her family, friends and employer. She recognized that in choosing a care team, she was entering into a lifelong relationship – a relationship that must be characterized by a commitment to excellence, openness, honesty and compassion.
Recovery also includes an ongoing re-prioritization of needs. At diagnosis, her initial response was reactive – that this was an incredible inconvenience and detour from her planned path. Her priorities before cancer were: 1) career, 2) husband 3) extended family/friends. After cancer they became: 1) husband/family 2) health/self. Although her career continues to be a priority, it is no longer the defining priority in her life. She worries about her job security within her work place. She suffered a loss of job status during treatment that has not yet been fully recovered. She has had to educate her employer about the nature of breast cancer and about what may be appropriately expected of her.
Personally, she has been blessed in her relationship with her husband, David. “I could not ask for a better life partner – he has truly been there for me.” Though this crisis occurred early in their marriage, David rose to every challenge in order to support Frances. She worries about his well being and the fears that he does not share with her.
The breast cancer diagnosis and treatment have forced Frances to delay considerations related to having children. Irregular cycles post treatment have made this more of a concern. But Frances is profoundly aware that if cancer teaches anything it teaches that you cannot predict today where you will be in two years, or five years or ten; that life is, to a certain extent, unpredictable.
Surprisingly, friends and family – anxious to help – have frequently voiced their beliefs about what may have contributed to the development of Frances’ breast cancer. Some lay the blame on her career and the stress associated with it – many have suggestions about diet, nutrition and stress management. But Frances truly understands that she must come to her own conclusions about both the disease and what she can do to help prevent its recurrence. She is at peace with the knowledge that she really cannot know what caused her breast cancer – but that she can do a lot to enhance both the quantity and quality of her life.
A lifelong musician, singing, playing piano and organ, Frances has reawakened to the joy of gospel music in her life. She has awakened to the pleasures of small and large things – appreciating each moment, believing that everything happens for a reason, and that we each must define that reason for ourselves.
If she was to share the lessons she has learned to this point in her breast cancer journey, she would say: “Live without regrets, self-recrimination or self-doubt.” Remember that you have time for a second or even third opinion. Know that it matters that you choose your caregivers wisely because you are entering into a life-long and hopefully life-enhancing and life-preserving partnership with them.
Like all survivors, Frances has her moments when a nagging ache reawakens the fear of a recurrence. However, she rests her mind and heart in a place of peace, knowing that she has “gone the distance” and that she has pursued the best of care. She has learned to live without regret – to acquit herself of the “what if’s” and “why’s” of this experience. She hopes that every newly diagnosed patient remembers: You have time, you have choices, you must ask all of your questions and you must build a life partnership with your caregivers.