A Cancer Survivor Shares Her Story

by Lempi Koivisto

Cancer Survival StoriesI stared at the message left on my desk after I returned from lunch. "Dr. _______ office requests you call today to schedule an appointment."

I didn't even realize I was crying until a big tear plopped on the yellow sticky note -- blurring the number. I realized I'd been holding my breath and let it go -- I knew at that moment I had cancer. My whole being sank.

My Diagnosis

I know you're advised to take a family member with you to your appointment. I even heard that request when I scheduled it, but everything within me screamed, "No!"

I knew how completely devastated my husband, siblings, and parents would be with the news. I'm usually my family's "rock," holding everyone together during a crisis. Initially, I needed some time to process through the news and figure out how to let everyone know.

I was chastised later by my loved ones, but it's not a decision that I regret. I opted for a dear family friend to go with me instead to the doctor. She didn't try to give me advice or consolation. She listened and agreed, no questions asked. I came to the easy conclusion that cancer sucks.

The words ran together so fast it was like staccato music flying through the air. Stage IIIA breast cancer. Options for treatment. Laundry list of side effects for each. Survival rates.

"Cancer Survivor." Really? There wasn't going to be a survival of the "me" that existed before I walked into that office. She died with that sticky note.

That person was one who didn't have to wonder what she would look like, feel like afterwards. She was concerned about vacation plans, budgeting for a new home, preschool woes, and insuring homework was done…and trying to conceive baby number three and hopefully number four later on.

Who I was before had dreams for the future -- of raising her family together with her spouse, of growing old and playing with grandkids.

The "future" of the new me was getting to another birthday in two months.

Sharing My News

As devastating as the news was for me to receive, the greater pain came from telling my family. My husband is also my best friend, my champion who can fix anything, but couldn't fix this. My already elderly parents struggled to maintain and give me their strength.

My precious children, age three and seven, didn't understand anything more than, "I want my mama." Neighbors, coworkers, friends and church members all rallied to support. At times, their need to "be there for me" seemed much more about them. I found the kindness smothering. I just wanted to be alone or with my immediate family.

"Survival" at a Price

Due to complications, the surgery, treatment, and "recovery" process took the better part of a year. Looking back, the time is a blur.

I lost my job although not due to my cancer, of course. I missed out on countless holidays and family events and endured battling guilt as one of my parents experienced a life-altering stroke that was partially attributed to stress.

Impact on My Marriage

During one of my counseling sessions, I was told that relationships were either strengthened or shattered by cancer. I went into my battle certain that we would be an example of the former. We had a steel-like bond that could undergo whatever came our way.

I can share that there were days… weeks…even months where that was in question. We hung on because we had to.

BC (before cancer), my partner and I enjoyed a fantastic sex life. We loved exploring one another, finding new ways to please and excite each other. Touch, massage and endless caresses were one way that he had of melting me each and every time.

AD (after diagnosis), things changed. Before the surgery we were so conscious of how my body was about to change. After surgery, both of us were so wary of the physical changes. I found my body ugly. I was mortified by how my once full breasts that had nurtured our children and sexually aroused my husband looked now. My libido was next to nil as well.

I know now that my husband had to come to terms with how I looked as well. He struggled to find a way to overcome his own inhibitions. Add to that, the financial pressures, fear of my health issues, shouldering all the parental responsibilities, the strain combined to boiling points more than once.

Our marriage did last, but not without suffering a heavy toll. We continue to work together to rebuild our relationship. We both remain grateful that our relationship had been built on a foundation of faith and friendship. We laugh more these days but I know we will continue to mourn the loss of what was.

Impact on My Parenting

I was thrilled to discover I was pregnant with our first. While unplanned, that child was definitely wanted. Both of us longed to have four or five kids and met our firstborn with unimagined joy.

Becoming a mom fulfilled me. It was the vocation that I longed for. While we struggled with secondary infertility, we did eventually welcome in our second, never imagining she was our last.

While both of us recognized our roles as equally important to our children, there was no doubt that as a mom, I was central and intricately immersed in their little lives. I gave baths, read stories, made mud pies, sang and danced goofy, played games. I snuggled close to chase away the monsters in the night.

I made holidays and birthdays extra special, steeped in traditions and building memories to last a lifetime. A lifetime that was not expected to be cut so short.

My children suffered along with me during this ordeal. I know others tried and I am grateful for the care they gave but no one else could be "mom."

I remember how "BC" I would be at the point of exhaustion after washing yet another load of laundry and cleaning up piles of dirty dishes so we could mess them up again. I craved "me, myself, and I" time.

Today, that outlook has changed significantly. I am happy to be able to do laundry; thrilled to have the energy to stand at the sink washing plates and will never ever tire of the way it feels to have my children cuddling next to me, drifting to sleep.

I find that I'm more patient and have shifted the weight of picking my battles.

There are More "Tomorrows"

I am now considered "in remission." I don't know that I will ever really view myself as a survivor, even after three years that seems to designate a feeling of security that I'm not certain is ever possible after you've battled cancer.

I've had to reinvent myself in many ways. Along with my breasts, my once long hair now has finally grown into one I can style into a short, somewhat sassy cut that I think suits my personality.

My career path has changed, but I am finding I like it better than the desk job I held before due to the interaction I have with people.

As a wife and mother, I "feel more." I take every opportunity I can to say, "I love you." The new me is definitely a work in progress and I suspect that's going to have to be okay.

My original dreams might have been replaced, but I have not given up on them.

Right now, my personal wish is for more tomorrows to enjoy, be challenged in, and to love. To all my fellow "tomorrow seekers," I hope we've each learned to make the most of today and cherish each "tomorrow" as it comes.

What helps you survive? Share your stories with me!