Marking Milestones After ‘a Year of Love and Loss, of Fear and Comfort, of Pain and Peace, of Fortitude and Friendship’
Christine Corrigan was diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive stage I breast cancer in 2016, at age 49. She wrote this piece in March 2017, exactly 1 year after her diagnosis. Christine has graciously agreed for it to be used as part of Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Listen to HER2 program.
Full circle, I have come, as imperceptibly as winter’s sharp blueness and short shadows have begun to mellow in spring’s early light. I walked my garden today, noting the shoots pressing up from winter’s crumbling earth and reaching for the sun – the scilla, hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, painted ferns and golden forest grass that I planted so many years ago. I passed my favorite Japanese maple, its branches turning their spring orange, plump with buds that will soon burst with vibrant chartreuse leaves. I walked my back garden that blooms first with tulips and spring trees – redbud, beautyberry – and later with hydrangea and lilies all summer long.
Then, I stopped and noticed that the Cornelian cherry had bloomed, so early this year, its haze of yellow illuminating my back garden. I stood today in the early March sun, one year to the day of my diagnosis, and wept. I turned my face to the sky and wiped the tears of joy, sorrow and profound relief from my eyes. I breathed deeply and offered a silent benediction to God and all who brought me to this day.
One year of my life has come and gone, a year of love and loss, of fear and comfort, of pain and peace, of fortitude and friendship. I count myself so very blessed. This moment gives me pause to reflect on what has passed and to consider where to go from here. I have thought about the end since it all began, and now that the end of treatment is only in 2 weeks, it seems quite surreal. A lovely celebratory dinner is planned for that night, and I will be happy to raise a glass. Yet, I would be dishonest if I did not say that doubt casts its silent shadow on my desire to celebrate. This is not my first rodeo with cancer, and HER2+ cancer is aggressive disease.
I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager, treated with surgery and mantle radiation. I was followed for 3 years by my radiation oncologist in New York City, and I was declared “cured,” a word that is not really used in cancer treatment today. My medical oncologist on Staten Island followed me for several more years, and, when I showed up for my annual visit at age 21, soon to graduate college, my doctor said, “Hi, Kiddo.” That’s what called me at every visit, from the day of my diagnosis at 15 to 21. “Get out of my office. I don’t need to see you anymore. Go live your life. Marry a nice Italian boy. Don’t forget to have annual mammograms. Start them early, OK?”
I heeded his words (except for the Italian boy) and started my screening mammograms in my 30s because I had learned by then that the incidence of secondary breast cancer in Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivors treated with radiation is significant. For 15 years, I stood in a cold mammogram room, waited for the report, fingered my rosary, and prayed, “Not this year, please.” Time ran out in 2016.
Even though I know the long-term survival rates for my particular type of breast cancer are good and my post-surgical pathology showed a “complete response” to the chemotherapy, cancer patients are generally not considered to be in complete remission until at least 5 years have passed since the end of treatment without recurrence. So, my journey with breast cancer is not coming to an end, as much as I would like to say that it is Also, what many survivors and their family and friends don’t realize is that the end of treatment can be unexpectedly unnerving. Everyone wants to celebrate “the finish,” to get his or her life back, and to not spend so much time in doctors’ offices. The latent anxiety and fear – “what if it comes back?” – can creep up any time, even weeks or months after treatment has ended. So, in reality, I will continue to live with cancer’s specter and fear of recurrence, as I have since I was 15.
Further, for patients with metastatic breast cancer or other cancers requiring ongoing therapy, there may never be a complete remission to mark. Often, the best case is that those patients, like a relative whose only wishes are to outlive her dad and get her 16-year-old daughter into college, continue to hear that their follow-up scans show “no evidence of disease” and that the time between those scans increases. Still other patients never get to have these conversations at all. Their cancers are discovered too late, and every day lived becomes a milestone.
In many ways then, the milestones are not ends unto themselves, but are points showing a distance traveled. Reaching these first milestones has caused me to focus on what truly matters – my faith, my family and friends, and my community. I am simplifying and de-cluttering my life. I am using this time, this precious time, to pray more, to bask in the joy of my family, to delight in my friends’ company, to reconnect with those too-long missing, and to help others going through a hard time. I reach my hand back now, as others offered their hands to me, and in so doing, we all form a strong, beautiful chain of hope. I am trying to be more present and mindful: to listen more, to talk less, which for me is hard, not going to lie. I am writing. Perhaps, one day, my words and experiences will help someone else.
My oncologist often reminds me that what is to come is not in my or anyone’s hands and so I “should not worry about that which is not in my hands.” It’s great advice, but hard to follow, although I do try. To live in the present is no simple task. We look to the past, rehashing it, or to the future, constantly planning. Yet, we only have this moment, this now, with all of its doubt and pain, wonder and grace, and the scars that remain. Sufficient then is this day. Let us use it well. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
Christine Corrigan lives in Basking Ridge, New Jersey with her husband, children and dog. She is a freelance writer and is writing a memoir about her experiences during her year dancing with cancer, called My Boobs Are Killing Me and Other Things I Learned. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2. Read more Listen to HER2 stories here.
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