As a writer, I am constantly drawn to the page to express my thoughts and views. This post is a personal reflection on my journey through breast cancer this year, and how it profoundly affected my life. I hope you will find some tidbits that resonate for you. With that prelude, I begin . . .
That question played over and over in my mind when I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer last January. How can this be happening to me? There must be some mistake!
I wasn’t a likely candidate for breast cancer (as if anyone is). I have always led a healthy, active lifestyle. I eat really well. I watch my weight. I swim, hike, and practice yoga regularly. I have never been a smoker. There is no history of breast cancer in my family, and no genetic markers that raise my risk.
So, I wasn’t initially alarmed when the radiologist called me back for a follow-up screening after my annual mammogram. As a woman blessed with naturally dense, lumpy breasts, I had been through this drill several times in my life. It came with the territory. In the past, these precautionary exams had always come back benign.
This appointment is just another routine follow-up, I thought to myself.
Until it wasn’t.
Hearing the word cancer is life-changing. It sends the world as you know it reeling. I had never heard of multi-centric DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) before my diagnosis, but I am well acquainted with it now. As cancer goes, I am definitely one of the lucky ones. Thanks to early detection, mine was still contained and non-invasive. Three lumpectomies later I am now, thankfully, cancer-free.
It’s been ten months since this journey began, and life is finally starting to move forward again. Cancer isn’t the first thing that pops into my head when I wake up in the morning. But my reality is forever changed. I take medication every day and will be closely monitored by the medical community for the rest of my life. I don’t have the luxury of thinking, “It could never happen to me.” It did.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my sisters in the trenches. To the amazing, inspirational women I leaned on during those tense months, I’d like to say:
Thank you for allowing me to stand on your shoulders as I navigated new territory. You climbed this mountain before me, and extended your hands to make my path a little smoother. You were an anchor when the winds of uncertainty threatened to bend me low. You gave me hope.
You shared your deeply personal stories, talked me off the emotional ledge, and patiently answered questions with blunt, unvarnished honesty. You kept your sense of humor, and kept me from losing mine. You offered words of encouragement, and unwavering support no matter what treatment option I chose. You showed me what strong looks like.
I cherish the camaraderie that binds us together and helps us heal.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching as a result of going through this experience. These insights are some of the gifts cancer left on my doorstep.
1. Practice Radical Self-Care
My diagnosis was a wake up call. Faced with mortality, I stopped and took stock of my life. I looked at what was working, and more importantly, at what was not. My priorities began to shift.
Women are natural caretakers, and we often place the needs of others above our own. There are obligations to family, children, friends, employers, school, community, and more. What little time we carve out for ourselves comes after everything else is handled—if we aren’t too tired to enjoy it.
Cancer challenged me to create space instead of filling up every waking hour with more ______ (Fill in the blank with whatever “coulda, woulda, shoulda’s” are your drug of choice). I asked myself what advice I would give a dear friend in the same circumstances, and I followed that counsel. I treated myself to massage. I watched funny, uplifting movies. I sat quietly in the sun.
Making myself a priority felt foreign at first, but practicing self-care allowed me to be more present in my life and better able to cope with stress.
2. Surround yourself with supportive people
Relationships take energy, so as a rule of thumb make time for the people who make your friendship a priority. You know who they are. They show up. They stay positive. They stand by you—and not just when things are good, but when the going gets tough.
Especially when the going gets tough.
They laugh with you, and cry with you. They listen. They hold your hand. They follow though. You can be your most authentic self in their presence and they accept you for who you truly are—warts and all.
Harbor no resentment, but let the rest fall away.
Most days, there was a fine line between courage and scared shitless.
We have a choice when faced with life’s inevitable challenges. We can either rise to meet them, or we can let them drag us down. There is no one to blame for my cancer. It is a disease that does not discriminate. It can strike anyone.
But I do know this: Prolonged wallowing in self pity will halt you in your tracks. Dwelling in “why me?” keeps you from moving forward and through when the only way to get to the other side is to put your head down and take each moment as it comes.
For me, real courage means waking up each day and making the most of every precious minute I am given. You don’t have to get cancer to appreciate that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
4. Ask for and accept help
It’s not always easy to ask for what we need. Many people give freely of themselves but have difficulty accepting help when faced with personal crisis. By the same token, learning to receive with grace is a humbling gift.
I knew I would need help with meals for myself and my family as I recovered from surgery, so I asked my community for support. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the kindness that came my way. Those lovingly prepared, nourishing meals were such a blessing.
Through the years, I have made dinner for others, but I didn’t truly understand the impact of this gesture until I was on the receiving end.
5. It’s the little things
There were countless acts of thoughtfulness that lifted me up beyond measure: Friends who dropped off books, fresh-pressed green juice, warm appetizers, hand-crafted earrings, flowers . . . and so much more. There were calls, texts, and cards to say, “Thinking of you. How are you doing?”
Friends came to the doctor’s office with me, and stayed to hear test results. Sometimes they just sat with me when words could not suffice, but presence is enough.
Thank you for overcoming your own discomfort and fear of not knowing what to do or say, and reaching out anyway.
6. Cultivate a spiritual practice
The ability to center myself when things felt untethered was a huge help as I went through months of waiting, uncertainty, and anxiety. I found strength and calm in connecting to my spiritual side on a daily basis.
For me prayer, meditation, being in nature, and walking labyrinths filled my cup and smoothed the rough edges where dark thoughts can creep in. I constantly felt a larger presence at work in my life. Whether you connect with the Divine in a church or in your garden, it can be helpful to seek comfort in a force greater than yourself.
My diagnosis exacted a mental, physical, and emotional toll, but it also challenged me to take charge of my destiny however I could. I learned to advocate for myself. I reached out to experts in the field. I asked tough questions and did research. I weighed treatment plans and made the best informed decision I could based on what I knew. That’s all anyone can do.
Chances are, you too will be tested at some point in your life. And when you emerge on the other side of that rabbit hole, what will you see?
In the quiet moments when we face ourselves in the mirror, can we accept our imperfections and see the beauty and strength that lies in each of us? Will we listen to that still, resolute voice that challenges us to make the most of this one precious life?
Oh Karen, now i want to meet you even more!. Your writing is so beautiful and genuine. Breast cancer is a tough one, my own mom fought it twice( in remission for over 10 years) and my mother-in law just battled it this last year. She’s in recovery now and doing well. Thank you for sharing your personal story of strength and grace but especially for your lessons learned. We all need to be reminded of these beautiful insights. Sending you healing hugs, continued strength and good health.
Many blessings to your mom and mother-in-law Shahla! I’m so happy to hear they too are on the other side of this challenge. Thank you for your healing hugs, and I have no doubt we will meet soon 😉
And I love you Sydney! You are one of my clan. xo
Karen your writing kept me reading and your drive kept me grounded… I also was blessed with dense lumpy breasts and have been told there is fibrous changes which I’m preparing for a mammogram I had a lumpectomy 9 years ago and the tissue removed was benign. However, I have a small hard pea size lump now and my breast is painful . Thank you for sharing your journey and I wish you joy peace and health all the days of your life … You kicked cancers ass …
Your IG friend
Pattie, I am sending you light and love as you face this challenge. I will hold good thoughts for another benign result–please keep me posted!
Thank you for sharing your strength, lessons, insights, and love. You’re an inspiration to everyone!
Thank you for being there through it all Debbie!
Dear Karen, you have been someone I have looked up to since the day we met all those years ago. Your joy when you announced that you and Matt were pregnant with Haley, was amazing. Sharing in the Karner Clan Thanksgiving traditions made me feel like a part of your wonderful family. When you announced to your readers that you had breast cancer, my heart just sank. But, to read your blog today and to know that you are cancer-free, my heart is leaping with joy. You are such a beautiful person, inside and out. Thank you for sharing this journey with us. I love you bunches!
Such great memories from our friendship through the years Tammy. Thank you so much for your support and love. It means a great deal! xo
These learnings are going on my wall – to read, absorb, and acknowledge the hard-won wisdom of one spectacular woman! Thank you, Karen.
Bless your heart Lynne! I am honored by our friendship.
Thank you Karen for sharing your journey with all off us! I look forward to many years of growing our friendship!!
I look forward to that as well Carolyn!
Life’s challenges are not easy but I feel you come out on the better side of having learned how to deal with the,. So happy for you Karen.
There are lessons to be learned in every situation that comes our way, Jovina. It’s how we look at things and our attitude that can tip the scale.
Such beautiful thoughts on getting through a health crisis. These are words we can all learn from.
Thank you Joan!