Breast Cancer Anniversaries: Finding What Works for You
Diane Cooney, 53, an accountant from Horsham, Pennsylvania, goes to Aruba every year on the anniversary of her last day of radiation: January 23, 2015. Diane can tick off other dates, like July 8, when she received a diagnosis of hormone receptor-positive stage III breast cancer, and November 14, when she had a bilateral mastectomy. But the day when active treatment was behind her means the most.
“I count myself as a survivor from that point on,” says Diane, who also bought a motorcycle to celebrate the end of treatment. “I am not the same person I was before I had cancer.”
Many people who have dealt with cancer mark milestones or “cancerversaries.” They might take note of their date of diagnosis, the day they completed chemotherapy, or the day their doctor told them scans showed “no evidence of disease.” Some people take time for personal reflection or a ritual such as lighting a candle, while others prefer doing something festive.
“I think some people are drawn to a certain date and it is very important to them,” says Jennifer Bires, LICSW, OSW-C. Ms. Bires is a social worker and the executive director of the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, in Washington, DC. “For some people the date is hard. They are so glad to be back to normal, and it is something they don’t want to pay attention to. Some people hold it close to them and don’t tell anyone that it’s an important day. I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way of doing it.”
Yvonne McLean Florence, 55, of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, was ready for a celebration when she was 1 year out from treatment. So she hosted a “pink party” at her house for family, friends and others who had also faced breast cancer. The guests wore pink, the decorations were pink and the food, including watermelon and a cake, matched the theme.
“I was very thankful that I had no evidence of cancer,” says Yvonne, who was diagnosed in 2012 with HER2-positive stage III breast cancer.
In the years since her party she has lost some friends to breast cancer, so she now observes her anniversary quietly, taking time to think of others who are in treatment and who have also shared her experience.
Social workers and counselors who work with people with breast cancer say there can be value in marking certain dates. But anniversaries can also cause distress. Lindsay Chisholm, LCSW, an oncology social worker at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, in Denver, Colorado, often sees people who feel conflicted about their anniversaries.
“I see more patients feeling hesitant because the reality is that their life has changed, their view of what the world looks like has changed,” she says.
Metastatic and Trying ‘to Live as Normal a Life as Possible’
Anniversaries may feel different for people living with metastatic cancer because the disease is never behind them.
Dikla Benzeevi, 47, of Los Angeles, has had stage IV breast cancer for a decade-and-a-half. She volunteers as a peer mentor and patient advocate within the metastatic breast cancer community. To recognize the 15-year anniversary of her diagnosis, she celebrated over a low-key dinner with family and a few friends. She also reveled in hearing from loved ones who, at her request, shared photos from the previous 15 years and made her feel “a lot of joy and support.”
Despite the physical and financial toll of her disease, Dikla says she tries “to look on the bright side” at her diagnosis anniversary because “I am grateful to be alive.” She hopes that in acknowledging how long it’s been she sends a positive message to others that it’s possible to achieve “thrivership.” She also hopes to bring attention to the need for more research for metastatic breast cancer, focused on long-term survivorship with good quality of life.
“There are more people living with metastatic breast cancer for a longer period of time now,” she says. “We don’t always speak about it because we want to live as normal a life as possible.”
Talking to Loved Ones About Cancerversaries
Every year when the anniversary of her diagnosis with stage III triple-negative breast cancer comes around, Sally Teltow slips away for a couple of days alone. She observes her cancer anniversary in the same spirit as some people do New Year’s Day. It is a time to look backward and forward, to reflect on what she’s accomplished and to set goals for the months ahead.
“It’s a mental health weekend,” explains Sally, 50, an IT engineer and blogger from Austin, Texas. “I take time away from my household, my husband and children to think. ‘I had another year, another year of experiences. Have I used the time wisely? Have I made those meaningful memories?’ And then I think of what I want to do next.”
Sally, who is 6 years past diagnosis, uses the getaways to feel grateful for people who have helped her deal with breast cancer. At her 5-year cancerversary she threw a “thank you” party for her loved ones. A happy, upbeat person by nature, Sally also makes a point during her annual time alone to acknowledge the cancer-related fear, anger and sadness that occasionally nags at her.
“When you’re surrounded with family and loved ones it is difficult to show all the negative emotions because it’s hard on them to see it,” says Sally, who has two sons, ages 10 and 16.
Not everyone in your social circles may be on the same page when it comes to cancerversaries, and that can be upsetting, Ms. Chisholm says. If an anniversary is important to you and loved ones forget it or don’t want to talk about it, that can be hurtful. But it can also be hurtful if you want to ignore the day or privately recognize that time has passed while loved ones want to talk about it. Ms. Chisholm encourages people with a history of breast cancer to advocate for what they need.
“Finding someone you trust and you can share your feelings with, in an authentic way, can be very healing and assist a person in moving through some of the emotions that come with anniversaries,” she says.
Finding What Works
Ms. Chisholm says it’s common for people, like Sally, to mark the end of treatment or a cancer anniversary by saying “thank you” to those who took care of them or supported them. For others, expressing themselves through journaling or artwork may be the ideal way to recognize the occasion.
Connecting or reconnecting with a breast cancer support group or individual counselor may be helpful. Mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the present moment and accepting your thoughts or feelings without judgment, is another good strategy.
“It helps to create a space where you can unmask your humanness and say, ‘I am excited and grateful, but I am also nervous and scared,’” Ms. Chisholm says. “You can have joy, you can have distress. You can have it all together at once.”
At one point, Yvonne created a poster to chronicle her experience with breast cancer, and she found it therapeutic. For a while she kept the poster, which is filled with photos of her during treatment, within easy sight in her home. But she recently moved it to her basement office because she was concerned it might make some visitors feel uncomfortable. Yvonne says the poster continues to be a personal reminder of how far she’s come since diagnosis.
As more cancerversaries go by, you may experience less fear of recurrence. But that isn’t true for everyone, and it doesn’t mean thinking about the impact of cancer on your past or future is over.
Yvonne still has anxiety when she goes to the doctor for test results. She says getting further away from frequent checkups is reassuring, but “the thought of not having those extra eyes to monitor me does not put me in a celebratory mood.”
Yvonne says she’s come to realize that cancer anniversaries are important to acknowledge, though it’s up to an individual to choose how to honor them.
“My advice to other survivors is to celebrate life every day because the milestones and anniversaries may come and go,” she says.