My sister, Traci, is wife to Craig, the mother of two adult daughters, a voracious reader, a librarian at a private Catholic school, children’s literacy advocate, a British TV fan, and a Cancer Slayer.
Traci was diagnosed with stage three inflammatory breast cancer in the middle of 2019. She’s undergone a course of chemotherapy treatments, surgery, and is currently undergoing antibody infusions and radiation therapy. She learned that she was cancer-free on Christmas Eve 2019. Traci continues her treatment regimen as requested by her oncology team, stomping out the embers of that stupid, non-discriminating disease, continuing as the Cancer Slayer. Traci attributes her ability to finish her fight to an excellent medical team, her own strength, the strength of her family, and to all of the prayers she’s received along the way.
On a personal note, I am awed by my sister’s deep faith and strength in the face of her fight. She is an inspiration.
In her own words, along with my questions, here are the Six Things that Traci wants you to know about what she’s learned as a Cancer Slayer.
Number 1: It’s not my fault. And everyone seems to know that except me.
It is definitely not your fault. I’m sure that you are not the first cancer patient to say this, but let’s enlighten someone who may also have felt or thought this way. Now, why ever would you think that your having cancer would be your fault? How or why would you believe that radical, mutating cells, over which you have no control, would be your fault?
Although I am not stupid, I went seven years between mammograms. I thought that since we don’t have breast cancer in our family, and because I didn’t notice any problems, I was not pressed about it. Seven years later, I found a lump, and once you can feel a lump, it’s been growing for a couple of years. And once I noticed the lump, I started noticing other symptoms and physical changes so quickly.
If I’d have gone every year or every couple of years, maybe they would have caught it earlier. It wasn’t genetic so it had to be either environmental or something I did. If it’s something I did, it would be nice to know so that I don’t do those things again. Why did I not get regular mammograms? What did I do to cause this? Is it because I was drinking out of plastic water bottles? Because I ate out of microwaved plastic? How much of this could I have avoided? If I had regular mammograms, would it have been caught at stage one versus stage three? I met someone at radiation who also had breast cancer, and she has both breasts and has all of her hair. They caught hers early. Was it something I did?
Number 2: I’ll never be the person I was before. That’s mostly okay.
I get that a cancer diagnosis and subsequent fight would change one forever. What do you dwell on the most since your diagnosis? What big changes do you see in yourself? I don’t mean to make you navel-gaze, but I’m sincerely curious. What characteristics or traits do you leave behind after such a fight?
It’s not earth-shattering, but this is related to my Number 1. I dwell on the why. And I worry about a recurrence becauseI don’t know if I can do this again.
A positive change is that it’s really reversed our — mine and Craig’s — cynicism. It’s almost overwhelming to think about all of the things — big and little — that have encouraged us. People get in touch with me out of the blue. Our daughters’ friends sent cards. I got a gift bag and flowers from the women at my salon. People, some I hadn’t been in touch with in a long time, volunteered to give me rides to treatments. My family traveled from all over to be with me during my chemo treatments and when I had surgery. People are always sending gifts, cards, and checking in. I have a friend who is sending me my favorite tea. All of the expressions of goodwill, prayers, and Catholic mass intentions…
I see more goodness in people. I don’t mean to say I’ve turned into Mother Teresa, but I have become more patient and try to be more merciful with people. I don’t take someone’s bad day personally because you don’t know what is challenging them. Did they just receive a cancer diagnosis? I try to cut people a little more slack. And I really relied on my faith to pull me through.
I feel like I am going to always worry about it coming back. The physical effects are something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I have to worry about getting lymph-edema on my left side. I feel as if I can never go snorkeling again because I cannot cut my left arm on coral. I have to get heavy-duty gloves if I want to do any gardening. I had to buy a very expensive wig, and when my coworkers found out, they collected nearly enough money to cover the cost of the wig.
Number 3: Cancer can (temporarily but frequently) take the joy out of life.
Does a cancer diagnosis seem insurmountable? Does it make you over-analyze or intensely study every move you make? I’ll bet it is a serious disruption of all you do and know. Can you give some insight as to the magnitude of the change in your day-to-day?
The physical issues are a constant reminder. I still get creeped out by my [mastectomy] scar.
I missed so many happy occasions over the last several months because of chemo. I missed the first day back at school, and I love those kids. I love my job. We couldn’t enjoy my husband’s birthday. I had a treatment on Halloween. I missed the wedding of my “third daughter.” It ruined Thanksgiving; I ate only broccoli and black olives for dinner. Its tentacles reach into everything. When you are going through it, you cannot get away from it. I couldn’t do things like make dinner. Everything fell on Craig. I never knew I could be so tired.
On the flip side, it makes you appreciate when you do feel good and makes you want to do things when you do feel good. After the first few chemos, we did something in between the treatments. We went kayaking a couple of times…we used every good minute to make sure that we could enjoy it.
I just got on my elliptical for the first time since my diagnosis. I was pissed at how tired I was, but I’m building up my time. I’m going to just be glad that I’m back on it.
Number 4: I never knew I could cry so much — happy or sad.
And I’ll bet you never knew how much every one of your #teamtraci members would cry for YOU – good and bad! I know you, and you are not a cryer. This seems like this Thing has a lot to do with your Number 3. Were there times when you never thought you’d been so sad…or so happy, for that matter?
I cry so effiing much now! And it’s stupid. Everything makes me cry, good or bad. I look in the mirror at how my hair looks and it can make me cry. It’s definitely coming back, though. When I got the wig money from my co-workers, I started crying. I don’t see a lot of my work friends socially, outside of work, but I learned that almost everyone — including my substitutes — contributed to my wig fund. I mean…wow.
You cry because you don’t know if you are going to die. I cried after my fifth round of chemo when it seemed like no end in sight. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I lost 22 pounds in one week.
I go back to when we had to tell our girls. Remembering things like that…it’s just hard. On my first day back to school, I got a gigantic card that every kid in the school signed, and that made me cry.
Number 5: Listen to the advice of others but verify everything with your oncologist before following it.
I’ll bet you have received tons of unsolicited advice from people who “practice medicine” in their spare time.
People mean well, and advice is always good, especially if they had a similar experience. Even with people who had the same type of cancer as I did, no two people have the same experience.
I received so many suggestions, and someone even gave me some supplements. I thought, “I don’t know what’s in those!” So I sent my doctor pictures of everything [through the patient portal]. She mostly said, “just drink water and eat food.” I don’t make a move without talking to my oncologist. I even check with her to verify things that my GP said to do. And don’t feel like you are bothering your oncologist: that’s what they’re paid for.
Number 6: Even when it doesn’t seem like it, there are worse things than having cancer.
This one is hard for someone who’s never had a cancer diagnosis, to understand. This could give anyone who has just received a new diagnosis some hope. What taught you this lesson most?
What’s worse? Having cancer with no access to good treatment. I am so blessed to have had such good treatment. I was diagnosed on the 25th of July and had the first chemo on August 8th.
Do you know what’s worse? Losing a child. I know people who have lost children. That has to be so much more terrible.
My children have no major health concerns. I have a nice roof over my head.
I cannot believe the support system I have. I have not been alone in this fight for one minute. My friends have been awesome: My friend, Bill, sent me cards almost every day. And going through this without my faith…I cannot imagine. There is always someone who has it worse, unfortunately.
This is all temporary.