by: Meredith Stedham RN, LPC, VPO
The American Cancer Society reports that there are currently 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, and I am one of them. My name is Meredith Stedham and I am VP of Operations for the Motherhood Center. I am also now a 5-year breast cancer survivor. I hope that these few tips can help you or someone you care about to navigate the cancer journey.
1) Get your mammogram!
The goal of a screening test is to find disease in people without symptoms. Shortly before I turned 35, I went to my Ob/Gyn for my routine annual exam, which was normal. Because my mother is a breast cancer survivor, her doctor had instructed me to be sure and start my mammograms early at the age of 35 even though the standard recommendation for women in good health is to start mammograms at the age of 40. Because of this wise counsel, I requested that my Ob/Gyn order a mammogram for me even though I was healthy and had no symptoms… and it saved my life. I later learned that I had the most common type of breast cancer called invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), which spreads throughout the ducts and does not always cause a “lump” that can be felt. Early detection and treatment of breast cancer is crucial, so please talk with your doctor about screening and mammograms, especially if you have a family history of cancer.
2) Take ownership of your treatment decisions.
There are many decisions required once a cancer diagnosis is given. Thankfully, here in Houston we have plethora of highly skilled healthcare professionals to help women navigate their treatment plan. In addition, loving and well-meaning friends and family may also provide some advice (even though it is not always solicited.) I am grateful for the amazing team of doctors, nurses, friends, and family who encouraged me and supported me through the most challenging chapter of my life. I was not alone in my battle against cancer, but ultimately I did have to make choices. Even though there is an abundance of information about the options, research, statics, and recommendations regarding treatment, the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. I can remember getting to the moment when I realized that I had to decide on a course of action, and even more importantly, I had to choose to be confident in my decisions and not spend the rest of my life asking “what if?” The nurse in me wanted to analyze the science, but the thing that ultimately sustained me was faith and trusting in God’s plan for my life.
3) Embrace support.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was a single adult living alone and working a demanding full-time job as a nurse. I was eager and happy to provide help and support to others and be a caretaker. Then suddenly it was evident that for a while I would not be able to live my usual independent and self-sufficient life. I needed to allow myself to be on the receiving end and let others take care of me. As someone who likes to feel in control, this was a growth opportunity for me that turned into a life lesson I am thankful for.
4) Going bald can be a blessing in disguise.
I know- it sounds strange. My entire life my thick hair has always been my “signature” that other people noticed and complimented me on, so I went through a grieving process when I lost it. Obviously, the big picture of beating cancer is more important than hair, but it’s still emotional. What surprised me is that over time I became somewhat grateful that my bald head (followed by my chemo-affected crazy curly gray hair) served as a tangible reminder for me of what was happening to my body. When I had on my wig, fake eyelashes and make-up, I looked fairly normal to the outside world. But when those things came off, I was reminded that my body was in an endurance race and I needed to allow myself to rest and heal.
5) Being a Survivor is a choice.
Being a survivor is not just about whether you are cancer-free. It is also about choosing to move on from cancer and to accept the “new normal.” On Oct 3, 2009 just 8 days before beginning chemotherapy, I participated in Race for the Cure. It was a great day and a very symbolic experience. I remember telling myself that I would reach my finish line one day. At the time, I thought that meant that the pause button that was pressed on my life would release, and I would bounce back to being me again. Over time, I learned that was not the case. In cancer circles, the term used is the “new normal,” which basically means that life can be full and healthy beyond cancer, but not necessarily be the same as life before cancer. Many survivors continue to feel the effects of persistent fatigue and “chemobrain” even after treatment has stopped. For those of you at the beginning of your own cancer diagnosis, the coming months will be difficult. But there IS life beyond cancer and you WILL feel better one day!For more information on breast cancer, visit The American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org, or visit www.breastcancer.org.