“It” is hard to come by. It is blood and sweat and tears…many, many tears…and usually not a lot of glory. It is about being courageous at your weakest and about questioning the universe. It is about being incredibly lucky but realizing that others are not as fortunate.
Every cancer patient is desperate to have it. Every caregiver prays for it. Every friend and neighbor can’t wait to hear it and talk to you about it and celebrate it.
What is it? It is the hard-fought, hard-won, desperately yearned-for but never easily achieved – remission story.
We all want to ring that bell and drink the champagne. We all want to triumph over our cancer, to say that we squashed it into the ground, to shout that while the cancer was strong, we were stronger.
But the truth is, people with the best attitudes, a strong sense of fortitude, the cleanest diets breathing the freshest air, with harecore exercise regiments and access to the most revolutionary medicine…still die. All the time.
For all the purposes of this piece, I will share that I was NOT supposed to survive my cancer. According to Mr. Darwin and his “Survival of the Fittest” theory, I was not one of the fittest, as it happened to be. The trifecta of a late-stage diagnosis + triple negative breast cancer + the BRCA1 mutation meant that I had the armageddon of breast cancers….the worst one…the one with high mortality rates, few treatment options (17 years ago), and if I did survive, a high rate of recurrence.
Even my stoic, brilliant surgeon pulled my family aside and solemnly told them to prepare themselves. It was a shame…I was young…but it did not look good…the cancer was too advanced, too aggressive and the standard of care they could offer me may not be enough to stop the onslaught. Thankfully, I did not know any of that as I plugged through dose-dense chemo, then a double mastectomy, then full-course radiation, then rehabilitation, then reconstruction followed by more reconstruction and then even more. In the end, the underdog survived to tell her tale.
But what tale could I tell? At that moment, in the aftermath of treatment, I did not have enough foresight to tell a story of survival. It was all tread-marks and dust, and I could barely see through the wreckage. I was a 33-year-old woman who lost her career, her fertility and her confidence on the harrowing road to save her life. I was a sliver of the strong, vibrant person I once was. Now all I had were shattered dreams and an even more shattered body. It took me years, years to realize that I did, in fact, have a story of survival to share with others. And you can read my full story here
Today though, I’d like to share a few other accounts of people who walked through the fire and have the scars to prove it. They continue to live and thrive post cancer and give hope to those following in their footsteps.
Breast Cancer, Triple Negative, Stage II, age at diagnosis 37
Colon Cancer, Stage III, age at diagnosis 44
Janet, a mother of 4 and a US navy veteran was diagnosed with breast cancer and later colon cancer in the prime of her life. In spite of having no family history of either cancer, Janet did have a family history of mistrust of the medical community. Her mother, grandmother and entire immediate family seldom went for health visits and, as minorities, were generally skeptical of doctors and their recommendations.
At the time of Janet’s first diagnosis, she was unemployed and uninsured and was forced to turn to a VA (Veteran Affairs) hospital in another part of her state for cancer treatment. She quickly realized that she would need to be her own self-advocate and ask questions about her cancer care. A few years later, Janet was misdiagnosed when she experienced pain in her colon. The doctors dismissed it, and it was only when she pressed them for a colonoscopy did they find a stage III tumor. Janet was assigned to aggressive treatment right then and there.
There were moments of weakness, as one could expect. “Throughout all of this, my mom and husband coached me to do the right thing. When I wanted to give up, they were right there to get me back on track. My belief in God was key to keeping my sanity and pushing to the finish line.” Her faith and strong will took Janet all the way through to remission of her second cancer diagnosis.
Janet’s background and experience with cancer inspired her to dedicate her life to help other underrepresented communities to take their health more seriously and to press their doctors for scans and tests. She pursued a Master’s Degree in Health Science because she wants to educate minorities about their cancer treatment options, particularly clinical trials.
Janet continues to raise awareness through her non-for-profit breast cancer organization and health fairs and has sat on several university medical boards for discussions on precision medicine. “I started this community outreach because of the desperate need for simple everyday things. My support team consisted of my husband, mom, and many close family members. They were paying utilities, car payments, gas, groceries, and whatever else we lacked.” And now Janet and her husband use their personal funds to purchase inspirational books, colostomy bags and sometimes even provide childcare to other cancer patients. Janet is a true Diversity, Equity and Inclusion advocate and a true SHERO!
“My advice for other people battling cancer: You must listen to your body. You have to advocate for yourself. It could mean life or death. If you are uncomfortable speaking to medical professionals, contact someone who can help you navigate the healthcare system.
Early detection is the best way to cure cancer. Getting information out to at-risk communities will save lives, especially knowing that the mortality rate is high throughout minority populations.”
Breast Cancer, Stage IV with metastasis to the lung, age at diagnosis 39
The daughter of a single mother, Regina came from humble beginnings and found herself pregnant and a high school dropout at the tender age of 16. With no parental guidance to get her back on track, Regina decided that she would not become a statistic. She decided to earn her GED and apply to beauty school, and she did just that while raising her young son.
Through sheer grit and determination, Regina built a thriving beauty salon, married the love of her life and had two more children. Then one morning, Regina experienced a sharp pain in her left breast during her meditation. Days before her 40th birthday, she received a grim cancer diagnosis. The oncologist feared the worst and told Regina to get her affairs in order.
She started chemotherapy at the height of Covid, and therefore attended the infusions alone. Regina took advantage of her solitude to pray and be in tune with her mind-body connection. She knew that it would take a great deal of mental strength for her to endure the road ahead, so Regina decided to lean into positivity and gratitude. She closed her salon and focused on treatment, always staying prayerful and trying to find healing and grace at every crossroad.
Regina spoke to her cancer, willing it to go away, telling it to “stop right there.” And one day when Regina was at her lowest, she experienced a gift from her oncology nurse. The nurse told her it was ok to waver, to be sad and feel fragile, “I was given permission to not to have to be strong. I was weak. My body was weak. I surrendered myself to weakness and allowed God to be my strength.”
Reginia continued to stay hopeful and welcomed her infusions with gratitude, believing each one was healing her. Even when her hair fell out and her tongue and nails turned dark, she still saw the light. When the radiation burned her, she imagined herself as coming out of the embers as a fortified diamond.
Her positive response to the drugs stumped even her doctors who told her that she was a unique case, and one that they had never seen before. Instead of the cancer ragravaging through her body, it had disappeared.
Regina is currently 43 years old and has rebuilt her salon to be even more successful. She is passionate about encouraging patients to practice self-advocacy, to lean on others, and to keep hope alive.
“What I learned throughout my cancer journey is, if you look hard enough, hope is always shining through, but only
if you choose to believe it.”
“Angels are always present if you choose to see them. Light is always present if you choose to feel it. Miracles do happen if you choose to receive them. I realized that when cancer comes for your body, you should not allow it to take away your spirit or your hope.”
We all want to have that success story. After all, we are all realistically and metaphorically “dying to live” to be able to have a story of remission…a story of redemption. We all want the underdog story. And if you have one, congratulations! Hold onto it dearly. It’s a truly amazing thing to come out on the other side of such an intense and brutalizing journey like cancer.
The real question for the lucky ones, may be this: what are we going to do with our success stories? How can we share them with others to give our brothers and sisters a little hope in their darkest hours?
For me, it was a complicated situation. But ultimately I decided to let go of my beloved career that I had fought so hard to rebuild after my cancer. And now, I am blessed to work with cancer patients, like you, every single day. Sharing your stories, the happy ones, the sad ones…all the ones. It is a humbling privilege and one that I honor and cherish.
I hope that each of you reading this can become a “comeback kid” one day and have a remission story of your own to share with others. I truly, truly do. And I will leave you with this…when my oncologist learned that I naturally conceived twins after the chemotherapy that supposedly rendered me infertile, he called me and said, “I think that God is paying you back in goodness for all of your suffering.” To which I replied, “When does a man of science start talking about God?” And his response still rings in my ears, “We talk about God when we don’t have a way to bridge the gap between what we learn in medicine and what has happened to you.”
So my dear, cancer patient, remember this: Miracles do happen. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.