Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 - A Retrospective

marla crider, UAMS, Little Rock, Arkansas, breast cancer survivor
Marla's new hair
It’s a new year; however, I can’t help but reflect on the past twelve months, and why wouldn’t I? After all, the past eight months have been like no other in my life.

A friend asked me recently if 2013 had been the worst year of my life. I thought about her question for a moment then responded that it had not.  Needless to say, she was rather surprised by my answer.

Yes, it is true that I was diagnosed with stage 3, triple negative breast cancer in May, resulting in four-and-a-half months of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy in October. Was I frightened when the doctors confirmed my diagnosis?  Of course.  Was I apprehensive during the chemo treatments?  Absolutely.  Did I experience side effects and complications from the drugs that were prescribed to cure me?  Yes, and then some.  Was I emotionally prepared to have “the girls” surgically removed in exchange for an extended life?

Uhhhh, does a bear s--- in the woods?  So, why in heaven's name was 2013 not the worst year of my life? Simple. I learned to express love more freely, complain less, forgive easily, show compassion, and pray daily.  Instead of adopting a “why me” attitude when doctors confirmed I had cancer, I chose to embrace the disease, which lead to a candid self-evaluation and a more tolerant view of life in general. I like to think that I’m a softer, gentler version of myself.

When I was diagnosed with the “Big C,” I never expected to become a lifetime member of a sisterhood comprised of breast cancer survivors.  Unfortunately, this sorority has far too many members, but I have learned that my new comrades are determined, strong-willed women with a common mission:  to support each other and offer guidance and shared experiences when asked.  I am grateful to my “sisters” for their honesty when I was unsure of what to expect during the treatment process and their words of encouragement when I became anxious.  As a new member of the sisterhood, I plan to be a sounding board for other women who may find themselves walking down a similar path.  Together, we are all stronger, and together, we can conquer this insidious disease.

Breast cancer is not a death sentence, but it will change the survivor’s life forever.  The mind and body are always on alert and tend to overreact to routine aches, pains and any unusual responses to normal stimuli. No matter how hard we try not to, we can’t help but wonder if the cancer has returned. Perhaps, in five or ten years without a re-occurrence, we survivors can live a normal life void of fear and angst.  I look forward to those days.

Over the past few months, I have realized that some of the effects of the chemotherapy are still with me, reminding me of my journey and that it isn't over.  Sometimes, it’s the small things I notice, like my fingernails that have yet to grow back. They are still stubby and split easily. In addition, my left knee and both hips ache frequently – a post-chemo ailment that occasionally limits my ability to rise from the couch or a chair. And I continue to have digestive issues that will require further investigation later in January.

A few friends were concerned that my long, thick eyelashes would grow back shorter and thinner, but I’m happy to report that hasn't been the case.  My green “cat eyes” are once again surrounded by an abundance of black lashes.  And my eyebrows are so thick that I recently had to have them shaped up.  What I wasn't expecting after the chemotherapy was a growth of very light peach fuzz on my face.  Fortunately, it isn't noticeable unless someone is in my personal space, which isn't recommended if the person values his/her appendages.

Marla on New Year's Day 2014 with her
new friend, Coco Chanel
Pre-chemotherapy, I was blessed with a thick mane of dark brown hair peppered with grey streaks.  Three months after my last treatment, my inch-and-a-half-long locks are mostly silver and very curly.  At birth, I inherited my mom’s dark brown tresses but the new growth is very similar to my brothers’ salt and pepper hair that was once coal black, a trait from our Cherokee genes. For the first time in my sixty years, my brothers and I share the same hair color and style – beguilingly silver and closely cropped.  It’s too early to tell if my “fifty shades of grey” are permanent or temporary, but we should know for sure in a few more months.

It is no surprise that the new year will continue to be filled with oncology check-ups, PET scans and appointments with my plastic surgeon, Dr. Yuen.  It is anticipated that the reconstruction procedure will be scheduled in late March or early April, which will be confirmed when I meet with the surgeon on January 14.  The journey continues.....

It was in the early hours of New Year’s Day when I heard the nearby church bells ringing as I watched my new feline companion, Coco Chanel, play with her ball of yarn.  It was at that very moment when I experienced a feeling of contentment - an emotion that evaded me for months - and hopefulness that 2014 would be a healthy year not only for me but for my friends and loved ones, as well. 

Cheers to the New Year.