Celebrating One Year as a Breast Cancer Survivor
Where did the time go? Oh right—surgery, chemo, radiation, moving houses, raising kids, COVID. Here's what I've learned, 12 months on.by Sabrina Skiles Patient Advocate
Survivor: A person who copes well with difficulties in life. A breast cancer survivor? I don’t think a woman diagnosed with the disease ever fully expects to hear those words—or can even imagine when she’ll actually feel like a survivor instead of a fighter. But a person who copes well with difficulties in their life, well, that is something I can fully relate to.
If you’re just now joining my journey, I’m so glad you’re here. You can read about my breast cancer, starting with The Day I Heard I Had Breast Cancer and everything else including the Top 9 Tips and Tricks That Help Me Through Breast Cancer and What To Do When Your Chemo Is Delayed.
I want to be honest with you: The word survivor is still very hard for me to process, even one year later. But that is why this piece is so important for me to write. Because I am a survivor. I am a breast cancer survivor. You know the old expression, “The more you say it, the more you start to believe it.” Well, that’s where I’m at. So bear with me if you hear the word survivor a lot right now.
For those of us who are survivors, take a moment and look at that word. Because, you my friend, deserve it. We fought through one of the toughest battles we never thought we’d fight. We fought through tears and tear-stained pillows; not to mention pillows covered in our dearly departed hair #thankschemo. We fought through weighing second opinions and blood tests (many, many blood tests). We fought through scan-xiety, also known as the panic you feel every time you go in for a follow-up scan. We fought through long chemo days and messed-up taste buds. We fought through surgeries and drains. We fought through happy tears when playing with our children and trying to think about the future. And even the short radiation days where sometimes it didn’t even feel like a cancer treatment appointment. We fought through the radiation redness and everything in-between that I know I missed. BUT WE ARE HERE. We are survivors.
There’s a reason that word holds so much power. You aren’t a cancer patient anymore. You aren’t going through active cancer treatment. You survived. And that is something to be grateful for.
As I near the one-year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis, I wanted to share a little piece of my journey with you, the highest and lowest moments I’ve been through and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I know everyone’s journey is different but if you’re in the thick of it right now, hopefully these words will offer you encouragement and the knowledge that you will come out stronger. Here is my survivor story.
Learning to Accept Change
I’ll start with my lowest point, because I’m one of those people who always wants the bad news first. My lowest point had to be losing my hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. I felt like I lost my identity. Now, my eyebrows were incredibly unruly, so that I didn’t mind as much. But my lashes were so full that everyone used to ask me if they were real. My son now even has my eyelashes and I can’t help but smile—I created this boy, eyelashes and all. God willing, I will get those eyelashes back!
And then there was my hair. For the past 10 years, my long, honey-brown hair fell down to my elbows. It all came falling down, literally, two weeks to the date of starting chemo. I was devastated and heartbroken. (You can read about How To Cope With Losing Your Hair During Chemo here.) I bought a couple of wigs online (and got them in two days, Amazon Prime for the win!) and eventually got a human hair wig that made me feel like a brand-new woman. That Shania Twain song “Man I Feel Like A Woman” played on repeat for a while, not gonna lie! Here’s a pro tip for you: Talk to your insurance, they may have programs to help with wig reimbursement. My insurance covered 100% of my human hair wig (it took about three months of back and forth and detailed notes, but it happened).
Now, almost one year later, my hair measures about an inch long, which still bothers me. However, I am getting used to seeing myself without my wig. I'm even thinking about dyeing my short hair—there is a lot of pixie cut inspo in my Pinterest search right now!
Now for my highs. I found an extended family I never knew existed. They range from The Breasties or the hyper-local group in my area, the Colorado Breasties, to the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the Young Survival Coalition, to my entire Instagram family. There were people who showed up with the support I never knew I needed. Being surrounded by people who know exactly what you’re going through lifts you up on your darkest days.
Speaking of Instagram: I recently polled my Instagram family asking: “When did you feel like a survivor?” The answers were surprising:
One year after I finished chemo, I realized I was a survivor, as there wasn’t any official claim of no evidence of the disease, or NED.
Right now. After a year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I started to feel like a survivor.
At the end of my active treatment.
I don’t feel like it just yet. Don’t know why.
From the minute I was diagnosed. I felt like that was the only option I had. I had a three-month-old at home and was basically given a death sentence. They told me I probably wouldn’t live to see her second birthday. I was like “Oh, yeah?? Watch me!” That three-month-old baby turned 15 yesterday!
Honestly, it was right after my lumpectomy. I knew my surgeon got it all.
I still don’t identify with “survivor.”
This is just a reminder that we can feel like survivors at different points in our journey. And for some, that feeling has yet to come. There is no right or wrong answer here. Your journey and when you arrive at the word survivor will look different and that’s OK.
Another high: writing this column. I can’t tell you how therapeutic and cathartic it’s been sharing my story in hopes of helping other women. And honestly, wanting to get the conversation started around women’s breast health. Ultimately, my mission is to get the age of mammograms lowered from 40 to 30 because as we all know that prevention and early detection is key. But if we as young women can just start talking about breast health more and having open and honest conversations with our health care providers, that is how change can happen!
You Can Take It with You
My breast cancer may be gone, but some lessons I’ve learned along the way will stay with me forever. Here are the top three things I’ve learned from this experience:
It’s OK to be mad. And to cry. And to throw things. But don’t stay there too long. Ask for help because your mental health matters. I’m seeing a therapist right now and I’m not ashamed about it. I was in a bad place mentally, and I knew that. So please ask for the help if you need it. Even if it’s just sliding into my DMs for a conversation or just a “I need help, but I don’t know what kind.” And no it won't be weird, I promise! I’m here for it, all of it.
Kids can learn compassion at the ripe old age of 3 ½ and 2 years old. Yes, that’s how old my sons were when we told them. It didn’t feel right hiding it from them. We ask our children to tell the truth, so I knew I needed to do the exact same thing. I take comfort in the fact that my children now know what compassion looks like. It’s a life lesson I didn’t expect to teach them so young, but now they have those tools in their toolbox, and I’m proud of that.
I am stronger than I thought. I’m parenting without my parents who I lost seven and three years ago. I had both my sons unmedicated and I felt like a badass. But then life throws cancer and a big family move at you at the same time and that truly tests your strength. You can also file this under “It’s OK to ask for help.” Because there will be days when you can’t do everything, and it’s in those moments that it’s OK to lean on others.
Life is tough but remember, so are you. Wherever you are in your journey, step one is to take things one day at a time. I still am. And when you do think about the future, and where you’ll be a year from now, take a deep breath and repeat after me: I will be a survivor.