– and to those facing the breast cancer journey

You’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer and you are numb and scared. Your world just turned upside-down. Let me help you set it right. I am 10-year survivor, diagnosed August 6, 2009. I was in your shoes that day, shocked, freaked and little ashamed that I’d allowed my health to get away from me. You see, I am a control freak in so many parts of my life. Yet, my world then felt spiraled and out of control. But not for long.

The few people I told at first all had plenty of advice, but the only ones I listened to were those who’d walked the path before, especially my friends Elizabeth and Melanie. They had the perspective I needed and the encouragement I sought.

Today I am a 10-Year Thriver. The day is one of reflecting. I’ve chosen this year to write to my younger self- and to those newly diagnosed- with the wisdom and perspective that come with time with some well-lived advice (my view).

A few things I want you to know:

Don’t be ashamed and don’t blame yourself for having cancer. You did not “catch cancer;” it caught you by surprise. While several lifestyle factors can increase your risk, why some people have the disease and others do not remains a mystery shrouded in research to find both a vaccination and a cure.

You just received a wakeup call and not a death sentence. There are amazing treatments for the disease and ongoing research to save more lives, but you will also have to work on your self-care as well and not just rely on your doctors, and I mean this for the rest of your life. Dis-ease is your body crying out for help. Answer the call by listening to it more.

The day you were diagnosed will become a milestone marker in your life that you did not expect. This can happen to anyone who experienced something traumatic. Over time, your feelings may change, or maybe not.  If someone tells you to “move past the experience,” remember: It’s your story, not theirs. Own up to what you stand for and how you want this day to look for you and for the experience to be imprinted in your life.

There may be unexpected emotional triggers long after treatment ends. My heart skips a beat and I feel dizzy when I hear someone has been diagnosed with a recurrence, with another cancer or dies from the disease. There may be an anxiety attack. If becomes something more difficult to manage, seek help. It’s okay to acknowledge when you need help. I didn’t do this and wish I had.

Breast implants feel….implanted in your chest. I still lack feeling in parts of my chest area, have lingering pain, weakness and numbness in my arms and chest. Certain exercises help including stretching, yoga and strength training. You learn to adapt. That said, my arms broke out in an itchy rash when I recently heard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled my textured breast implants because they are linked to a rare form of cancer. (an emotional trigger perhaps).

You become the accidental activist. Some say the day you were diagnosed is the day you become a survivor. I also feel it’s the day you become an advocate for better health, not just breast cancer awareness. You can’t help but want to make changes for yourself and for others. Just know, while some will appreciate your enthusiasm and advocacy, they may not share it or support it. Don’t take it personally.

Throughout your life, people will say the strangest things to you about cancer that may seem downright insensitive. Sometimes people have no idea what to say or may feel awkward and blurt out something that just does not resonate and even be hurtful. Shrug it off.  Remember to listen to your inner voice and not someone else’s comments.

Change is your choice. Some cancer survivors make a promise to start over and make some pretty drastic changes. However, it’s perfectly fine if you just want to settle back in to the life you had B.C (before cancer). Do what suits you, but do try to take better care of yourself.

You may decide Pink is no longer your color. You are not being disloyal. There is no rule that breast cancer survivors must wear pink clothes, eat pink cupcakes or buy pink products. For me, Breast Cancer Awareness is 12 months of the year and affects women (and men) of all backgrounds. It’s an equal opportunity disease, and I am reminded every day when I take off my shirt, no matter what color it is.

Some survivors may say having cancer was a “gift,” a health reawakening. My response is, “please don’t re-gift that one to me!”  I consider cancer a nasty bump in the road of life that I managed to navigate, despite the hard jolt, and come out relatively intact. The “gifts” were the people like me, touched by cancer, who I met along the way who have become friends and trusted cancer colleagues. I may never have met them had I not been diagnosed.

The biggest gift is more time to live my life, preferable on my terms and making a difference. Others don’t have the choice, and I never take it for granted.

I am still here. And hopefully you will be, as well: in my shoes as a healthy survivor/thriver- 10 years later.