This summer, I will celebrate my golden anniversary. As one does with any great, long-lasting relationship, I'll spend the occasion with my close family and friends.
Of course, for someone only 28, the golden anniversary on Aug. 31, 2010, isn't the conventional 50-year wedding anniversary. It's a different milestone: my five-year relationship with remission - five years of being cancer free.
I was only 24 when I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. I discovered the lump myself in June, 2005, and received my official diagnosis in August. I had learned how to properly do a self-exam at 19, and doing them became a monthly ritual, one that would save my life.
I was home in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, visiting my parents when I received the phone call from my family doctor in Halifax explaining that the biopsy results tested positive for cancer.
I can't remember any of what my doctor said to me after the words "breast cancer." Her voice suddenly sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher: "Mwa, mwa, mwa." I was on the other end of the phone feeling intense fear and disbelief. Not to mention shock. I had lived 24 years without any major health complications. How was it possible? Getting breast cancer under the age of 30, I thought, is a statistically rare occurrence.
I spent most of the days after my diagnosis lying in bed trying to make sense of everything that was happening. I have neverspent so much time thinking about my life. But, exhausted from thinking, I still couldn't find answers to my questions. What had I been thinking about prior to cancer entering my life?
Within a week, I underwent numerous tests - bone scans, ultrasounds, X-rays and blood work - to detect whether the cancer had become more widespread. All of them were negative. I was ready for surgery to remove the tumour. I opted for a lumpectomy over a mastectomy because it involved removing only the part of my breast that contained the cancer.
After I was released from the hospital, I called my surgeon three times to see if the pathology report on my tumour had arrived. Each time he reassured me that he would phone as soon as it was in. A lot was riding on that report: The results would determine if I would need further treatment. But I was optimistic that my experience with cancer was over.
I was wrong. The cancer had spread to my axial lymph nodes, and I was going to need chemotherapy and radiation. I was terrified.
Immediately after I received the pathology report, my father, a cancer patient himself, sat me down for a heart-to-heart. A non-smoker his entirelife, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and underwent both forms of treatment. He told me that radiation was "a walk in the park" compared to chemotherapy. Sharing his experience gave me strength.
The next six months I went through four chemotherapy sessions and 28 radiation sessions. Sadly, during this time my father's lung cancer spread. The doctor told him he probably only had a few weeks left.
Almost three weeks later, on Jan. 26, 2006, my father died in the hospital. He was only 58. My mother, my three older siblings and I were at his side as he slipped away shortly after midnight. It was the most painful moment of my life.
When I reflect on my father's battle with cancer, I realize he never wanted to know anything about his diagnosis, not even his prognosis. From the beginning, he was always ready to do whatever it took to overcome his cancer. The alternative wasn't an outcome he was willing to contemplate. He believed that when you stay positive, you stay powerful.
A month after my father's death, I completed my last radiation session. Over the months that followed I focused on healing, reflecting and waiting for my hair to grow back. And I mourned my father.
Although this was the most difficult time of my life, I feel some good has come from it. My father's battle and my own have given me a rare opportunity for someone so young to discover what matters.
Cancer has changed who I am. I now place a higher value on my relationships with family and friends. I have become more adventurous - for my 29th birthday, I'm going zip-lining with friends in Moncton. And I've refocused my career aspirations. I place more importance on doing meaningful work that is going to have a positive impact on others, such as health promotion and prevention.
Life is, indeed, too short. So I am going to make it my priority to enjoy it, whatever comes my way. Whether my relationship with remission will one day end, putting me in relapse, I can't predict. But I am certain of one thing: Although we can't always control the obstacles we face in life, we can control how we face them. I will face the future with the strength, courage and positive attitude that my parents have shown me.
Kimberley Reid lives in Halifax.
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