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Life After Ringing the Bell

by Jennifer WilsonSurvivor, Invasive Ductal CarcinomaApril 10, 2023View more posts from Jennifer Wilson

Life After Ringing the Bell: Shedding Light on Survivorship

As I sit at my dining room table thinking to myself “the unseen challenges of survivorship. . .”, I am taken back to the time when I blogged about my cancer journey with a nice smelling candle lit, Dave Matthews playing in the background, and drinking hot tea. Writing my blog was my form of therapy. I was able to express myself in a manner that I had never experienced before. Yes, I wrote tons of papers in grad school, but this type of writing was different. It was my outlet to express myself and help others. I was grounded, I was centered, and the words flowed onto the blank screen in front of me. I enjoyed blogging and communicating to my friends, family, and others affected by cancer that read my blog. It was my way to let them know that I was strong and was going to beat breast cancer!

I was very fortunate and had an amazing support system from day one. My family, friends, co-workers, and everyone showered me with cards, texts, prayers, phone calls, and food. My blog and journey centered around the anchor, a symbol of HOPE. Further, the symbol of the anchor also represents the sorority that I belonged to in college, so it truly was a very special symbol to me. I received many anchor-themed gifts over the course of my first cancer surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation: anchor jewelry, anchor jewelry box, pants with anchors on them, and an anchor blanket, etc. If it had anything to do with an anchor, I probably received it. I also received inspirational bracelets along with a very special bracelet with the word BRAVE engraved on it.

My cancer care team was tremendous, and I was very fortunate to receive excellent care. I was an elementary school counselor, and fortunately, most of my treatments were scheduled around my school schedule. I had a bilateral mastectomy in March the week after spring break and went back to work for about two weeks in May before the school year ended. I started chemotherapy in the summer. While finishing up chemo in the beginning of the school year, the school that I worked at was flooded by Hurricane Harvey, so the entire school had to go to a satellite campus. I had radiation for four weeks and completed radiation the week of Thanksgiving break. The morning bell ringing after my final radiation treatment was a joyous celebration. My support system was present and in full force in the radiation waiting room. We drank sparkling apple juice and ate doughnuts.

The month of December flew by with many holiday festivities. It was now January 2018. I definitely was not the same person I was on February 2, 2017, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. As a side note, February 2 is Groundhog Day, a day I do not want to repeat. I received a phone call from my doctor’s office at work and was told that my test results were in and to bring a loved one . . . My husband went with me to my appointment and the rest of that day was a blur, time stood still.

I viewed the world differently now that I was a survivor. There were some things that didn’t really matter to me anymore and I felt there was more to life than just work. Don’t get me wrong, being a school counselor was a rewarding profession when I worked with children, but I wanted to help others in a different capacity. I thought I could help other women going through breast cancer.

I had many ideas on ways that I could help other women, but I also realized that I needed to help myself first. My body was different than it was before cancer. I had to accept my post cancer body—scars and all—and move on with my life. My brain was different than it was before cancer. I had trouble remembering things and certain words, maybe it was “chemo brain” or the estrogen blocking medication I had to take. Hot flashes visited me many times throughout the day and night sweats visited me while I tried to sleep. I continued to go to cancer check-ups, so I was continually having to take off work.

In December 2018, my husband and I went to Venice, Rome, and Florence for our five-year wedding anniversary. It was the first time that I had ever been to Italy or Europe for that matter, and we had an amazing time.

When we returned from Italy in January 2019, I thought to myself, “there is so much of the world to see. . .” Little did I know, my husband, my dogs, and I would move to Amsterdam in the summer of 2019. I loved living in Amsterdam, traveling and having a carefree lifestyle. God knew this was what I needed during that time of my life, an opportunity to heal and live stress-free. We returned to Houston, Texas, in the summer of 2020.

Post cancer care is part of my breast cancer journey that I did not blog much about. It is now November 2022, and I am driving to MD Anderson (MDA) Cancer Center for an appointment. I notice the stillness of the world around me and the darkness of the sky. There is no traffic (which is rare for Houston) and it reminds me of the many early morning drives to radiation therapy. As soon as I walk into MDA to check-in, I hear the sweet sound of a patient playing the piano. I have not heard anyone play the piano since before the pandemic. As I wait for my appointment, I look around the room and I can immediately tell who the new patients are. The new patients ask the people working at the front desk many questions while checking in and walk around in circles trying to figure out where to go. I remember getting lost many times and feeling overwhelmed as to what appointment I was going to next. I am now a “seasoned” patient, and I think of how far I have come.

I also think about the task at hand, “the unseen challenges of survivorship. . .” I have a nice smelling candle lit while listening to Dave Matthews, and I am drinking sparkling water. I have not written on my blog in a very long time. I felt that I wasn’t in the right mindset to sit down and pour out my thoughts and feelings.

My mind is racing with many, many thoughts. I think about other breast cancer surgeries that I have had, and the recovery times involved. After every surgery, I felt like I had to start over again and build up my strength to what it was prior to the surgery. I had to learn how to navigate other life changing health obstacles. Survivorship is lonely, and I think about the many times that I felt “lost” and tired. I also think about the countless hours I have spent driving to and from appointments, waiting in the waiting room, waiting for the doctor, waiting for test results, etc. I think about the awkwardness of telling people that I had breast cancer or if it is necessary to tell them. In some cases, for people that did now know me in the past, I need to tell them for work-related reasons.

I think about my body, brain, and mental health and all that I have been through in the past five years. The five years that mark my survivorship. I am now looking forward to helping others in a different capacity; helping women thrive and survive while utilizing my professional counselor license in the state of Texas. As I am finishing up typing, I look down at my wrist and see the bracelet that reads BRAVE. It is tarnished and scratched, and so am I, but that is OK, it reminds me of how far I have come and how much further I will go.

This article was featured in the March 2023 Unseen Challenges of Survivorship issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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