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What I Learned the First Five Years

by Vivian Roe

Inspiration image

On March 3, 2011, I hit a milestone that not long ago I never expected I would reach: Cancer Survivor – 5 years.

Still, I can’t say that I feel like I’m out of the woods quite yet, and the physical scars from treatment remind me of that fact. When you had an aggressive, invasive cancer as I did, the schedule of regular screenings, mammograms, ultrasounds can be nerve wracking. And every little spot on the screen sends an immediate (though temporary) wave of fear, even as the doctor says it’s no big deal (but they still need you back in a month for another follow-up).

I accepted that I would never get an answer to the question
“Why me?”

Each day, as I move further away from the day I was first diagnosed, I feel it is an accomplishment. I’ve also managed to learn a thing or two:

♦ Lifestyle choices matter, but attitude matters even more.
We all know that eating the right foods, exercising, and avoiding alcohol and other risky behaviors make a huge difference in your quality of life after cancer. But all of the proper foods and exercising in the world won’t make a dent if your attitude is negative. Good lifestyle choices coupled with a positive and proactive state of mind – that is the winning combination.

♦ Not everyone at risk for cancer gets cancer, and sometimes people with very little risk still get cancer.
By all medical measures, I was at low risk for breast cancer. No family history, no genetic indicators, I was young (relatively, that is), fit, I ate well, rarely drank, exercised often, never smoked. So it was quite a shock when my number was called. On the other hand, I know at least 10 people who are at high risk for cancer, yet year after year passes for them cancer-free.

♦ Acceptance is the only way to keep your sanity.
When you accept that you have cancer, it doesn’t mean that you are happy about it. It just means that you are realistically facing the absolute fragility of life. I was pregnant during my treatment. I had to accept that the little girl growing in me might never know her mom. I had to accept that even if treatment went as planned I’d never breastfeed her and I’d never be able to have children after her. I had to accept that my body would be permanently altered. And I accepted that I would never get an answer to the question “Why me?” When I did this, I found peace. Then I was able to focus on becoming a survivor.

♦ Quality of life is largely up to you.
We each decide what we do with each minute of each day. We choose what we eat, where we go, who we spend time with, how open our hearts are to others. We decide our quality of life by deciding to appreciate and cherish life. Quality of life is not determined solely by physical abilities or disabilities. Quality of life is determined by our state of mind. You can wake up each morning and be grateful for the day. Or you can wake up each morning and loathe the burden of the human condition. It is truly up to you.

Each day I am one day further away from my diagnosis. Each day I am a cancer survivor one more day. I hope that I see many more of these days. But regardless of what the future holds, my first five years have been pretty darn good.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Vivian Roe is married to Brian and is mom to Elliot, Ethan, and Sophia. In 2007, she founded, an online meal-planning service for people with cancer.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.