On December 12, 2007 I got the dreaded diagnosis: “It’s cancer.” At that moment my whole life changed. I had a million things going through my head. My doctor, Dr. Cristina Lopez-Pelñalver was very reassuring, yet direct and candid with me, her assessment will prove to be extremely accurate, the course of treatment and subsequent referrals that she made were to my great benefit right on the money.
The morning that I was to go for the results of my biopsy, done just a day earlier in Dr. Lopez-Pelñalver office, I woke up from a dream about my father, who had passed away 26 years earlier. In this dream my dad assured me that I was going to be alright, that he was going to be there for me and to trust him. From that moment on I experienced the most incredible calm and inner peace. I had no fear whatsoever. When my doctor gave the diagnosis I asked “what next?” There was no fear, no hesitation and so I began my journey. By my side was one of my sisters and within minutes she had called all my other sisters and brothers, they never left my side.
What happened next was a battery of test to determine if the cancer had spread to other organs, referrals to oncologist, plastic surgeons, and second opinions my life became a daily routine of doctors office visits and I delved into researching about my cancer type, the test, the treatment options, the surgeries, the side effects, I wanted to understand when the doctors gave their recommendation I knew what questions to ask, what the implications were and what the dangers or possible complications might be. I started to make a list of questions for every doctor that I would see. For me this was very helpful, I wanted to be in control of my treatment and to have an understanding of what to expect.
In my journey I meet many women that had no clue as to what was happening, they did not understand the options, they were afraid or did not know what questions to ask their doctors and many felt that getting a cancer diagnosis meant an automatic death sentence. They felt lonely and isolated; many had fears of losing a breast or hair, and very scared to navigate this maze of decisions.
I learned a very valuable lessons during my cancer journey which I would like to share with anyone that is going through this ordeal I called it: “lessons learned: A guide to navigate and survive a cancer diagnosis.” In a nut shell great doctors, faith and family were my lifesavers.
1. Faith. Believing in a supreme god will comfort you and give you the strength to face the uncertain. It will help you through the tough moments, like waiting for a biopsy, doing a breast MRI, a bone scan, a PET scan, having a mastectomy and getting ready for chemo or radiation.
2. Family. Without the moral support of our loved ones, it is very hard to face a cancer diagnosis. Accepting their love, moral support, help be it financial, or cooking a meal for you, staying in the hospital overnight to keep you company, a phone call etc. Having family and friends to lean on is essential in your recovery.
3. Humility. Learning to receive help from family and friends is very important. After surgery you will not be able to do your bed, cook, do the laundry, drive, go shopping, and clean your house. You need to accept this help and be grateful fort it.
4. Acceptance. We do not have control of what life has in store for us – call it destiny, fate or whatever. The more you resist the harder it becomes. The sooner you accept your diagnosis the easier the journey will be. You will be able to turn the page and move on with your life. Cancer is not a punishment, it’s just another dreadful illness, one that can be treated and if you play your cards right go on with a rich and full life.
5. Patience. Indeed is a virtue. Any body that goes through this journey needs to arm themselves with plenty of patience, this is a long and difficult road to travel and there will be many days your faith, endurance, courage and fortitude will be tested. Yes, it’s a long journey, but one that will pass.
6. Forgiveness. One self and others. We carry too many burdens, these only brings us down, letting go of these feelings can make us free to growth and become better people. Forgive those around you and specially forgive yourself. This is a liberating felling.
7. Self-evaluation. This journey has giving me the opportunity to examine my life you will have the time to slow down, and think of the dreams that you never followed, how short life is, how we concentrate in the little things and not in what is truly meaningful in our life. We learn to appreciate, enjoy and savor life because suddenly we are reminded how fragile it is. We learn what is really important in life.
8. My mission. What good can come out of my journey? I am convinced that from this journey some good will come, be it that I become a better person, a more patience, forgiving, less demanding one, or that I may go on to educate and help other women in their journey, maybe a will help raise awareness and educate other women, or raise funds for research, perhaps I learn to enjoy life more, worry less about the small stuff and decide to live my life to the fullest.
9. Seek support. This is an essential part of the journey. There are many organizations that help you, educate you and give you support. I took part in some of these groups at the recommendations of my oncologist Dr. Grace Wang, I went to the Wellness Center, which is a fantastic center run by a great staff and where you meet patients, participate in events, classes such as yoga, gentle exercises after surgery, mediation, nutrition, belly dancing, and many interesting and informative conference by doctors and speakers. The best part of these sessions was meting other survivors that have been where you are now and tell you their stories and that they are survivors for many years. There is the American Cancer Society which is incredible in its support.
10. New beginning. The final chapter of my journey which is the beginning of my new life. When you are done with your treatments, surgeries and rejoin work and life. My commitment to live my life with a very different perspective. I also made a list of the 10 things I want to do with my new life. I know that what got me through this was: my deep faith, my wonderful family and friends, my amazing and skillful doctors, a healthy dose of humility, patience, forgiveness, acceptance and hope for a better day tomorrow.