By the time this post goes live, it will have been eight months since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and about six since it was confirmed stage 4 with bone metastasis.
To say it's been a rollercoaster ride wouldn't be inaccurate, but it's really been more like a high-speed train trip where everything's moving so fast the surrounding scenery is just a blur.
I've been through surgery and recovery; scans and ongoing treatments. I've traveled all over Michigan and beyond, turned 50, sat for a boudoir photo shoot, and had my first experience putting this year's body in last year's swimsuit.
People like me have died. So have people who weren't like me. Mortality is a daily contemplation. So is living.
And right now, I'm living.
Which means there's work to do. That work started when I decided to write this series. And as this part of it ends with this last post, new efforts are beginning.
When I first connected with a volunteer for the American Cancer Society to start my advocacy, I was astounded by all the resources and information available for those battling cancer—the kinds of things you don't necessarily need to know about, until you NEED to know about them.
She recommended I write about those, which seemed a pretty fitting way to bring this to a close.
So, here we are.
Why did I get cancer? Is it my fault I got cancer? Is it anyone's? There is no firm answer. And while there's a general consensus that certain factors can cause cancer, some people are just, well, unlucky.
I remember early on sitting in the geneticist's office, where I was getting tested to see if am predisposed for any type of cancer. (I later learned I'm not; at least not the known markers.)
She gave me a pep talk and a sheet of paper that contained, essentially, the road map for the rest of my life. In short:
- If you smoke, quit. If you drink, cut way back.
- Eat a diet high in fiber, fruits, vegetables (especially brightly colored and leafy greens), peas, beans, and antioxidants, including green tea, dark fruits, and fish oil.
- Get regular exercise and maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid processed and charred/smoked meats.
- Wear sunscreen.
- And, of course, see your doctor for checkups and get regular screenings, if possible.
All that pink you see in October? All that facial hair you see in November? Let those be your reminders to do your own due diligence.
Will all this keep you from getting cancer? Will it stop my existing cancer from worsening? I can't say. But the professionals say it can reduce your risk and also reduce risk of other diseases, such as heart conditions and diabetes. For me, I believe it can also set my body up to be the best fighter it can be, now that I have it.
And that's enough for me to listen.
Getting Treatment and Support
Once I was diagnosed, I put myself in the hands of my care team at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and Cancer and Hematology Centers of West Michigan. What else was I going to do? They're the experts and I knew they were all going to be working together to address my specific situation. And they did—and continue to.
But depending on where you live, the insurance you have and other potentially limiting factors, it's best to be an active participant throughout the process. Breast Advocate is one app that helps navigate it all, especially if you're faced with making some of your own treatment decisions.
While there are many other resources out there, American Cancer Society has, for me, been one of the more comprehensive and informative—and thus where I've decided to portion some of my efforts.
There's also a local Gilda's Club offering free emotional care to those dealing with cancer, whether their own or a loved one's. Hope Lodge provides free housing for cancer patients and their caregivers. I live 10 minutes from my treatment facility. I couldn't imagine how much more of a challenge and financial burden it would be to have to travel any distance. Learning Hope Lodge exists for those in need warmed my heart immensely.
I'm here today. Or, I should say, there's a greater likelihood I'll be here for more tomorrows, because of groundbreaking research and innovative treatment options that are now available—and weren't as recently as five years ago.
And there's hope that in years to come, new advancements could come through if the regimen I'm on is no longer effective. If that isn't motivation to do what I can to get more resources to those who could further lengthen my life—or if not mine, someone else's—I don't know what would be.
Here are a few initiatives I'm aware of and involved with. Considering that the stats show cancer could affect one in three people in their lifetime, these are worthy of consideration for anyone.
In a couple of weeks, I'll walk the runway in the American Cancer Society's Dress for Hope event. All models are cancer survivors and proceeds go toward finding cures and fighting cancer.
Not all cancer survivors look like me. I have hair. I look healthy. In showing myself as someone living with cancer, I hope others will see that the face of this disease is changing.
I also started following METAvivor and getting involved with the Light Up MBC campaign through Moore Fight Moore Strong. In a collaborative effort, we were able to get McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids to light up in MBC awareness colors of teal, pink and green, Friday, October 11, through Sunday, October 13. This is kind of a big deal.
And one of my wonderful, outgoing, influential friends has agreed to participate in Real Men Wear Pink. He'll wear pink throughout the month of October, with a goal of raising $2,500 or more toward ACS initiatives. Rather than split our efforts, I've chosen to bolster his. You can read about him here.
Finally, down the road in 2020, there's ResearcHERS™: a campaign that directly supports women-led cancer research. I'm looking forward to that!
I'm sure these are only a handful of what's available. But for me, they're a start.
While I could go on and on, I really need to put a bow on this.
My biggest wish with this entire series?
Someone will read one of these posts and take note, whether it's a lifestyle or outlook change, a mammogram or other screening, outreach to a friend or loved one, or advocacy on their own behalf or another's.
Allison Kay Bannister, a West Michigan resident since 1987, professional writer since 2002 and GVSU alumna, recently launched her own freelance writing business. Allison enjoys travel, art, dance, food and exploring world cultures—and, of course, writing about all these and more.
Main photo: Cancer survivors at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Kickoff. Courtesy of Kasie Smith.