Chronicles of Courage: Balancing Cancer Treatments With 'Normal' Life

by Caitlyn Kowalczyk
Oct 4, 2018

In the spring of 2013, I had a plan. Solidly in my twenties, my formative years had taught me a thing or two about hard work, aspirational thinking, and, yes, coming up with plans—especially ones that involved moving to New York City to pursue a higher education.

As visions of graduate school danced in my head, I detected a lump in my breast. It was at this point that, boy, did I wish we had a better word for it than "lump." But these are just the trivial or inconvenient things that come up in life no matter what — like dropping the top scoop of your ice cream cone on the pavement.

I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't even looking for it, because none of my close relatives had histories of breast cancer. As it turned out, I wasn't even BRCA-positive. But there it was, uninvited, lumpy, and about to get in the way of a bunch of my plans.

A few diagnostics later and I was the proud owner of a left boob and 20-some odd lymph nodes chock full of cancer cells. I cancelled my flight and moved into an apartment close to my treatment hospital. Then came the chemo/mastectomy/radiation treatment, which I describe as sort of like running a marathon — only you aren't a runner, you never wanted to run ever, and people keep congratulating you for an achievement you don't always feel like you have earned.

But there's definitely another way to look at it, and it's the one that saved my life.

Look, having cancer sucks. Even having a little cancer sucks a LOT. Even thinking you have a little cancer sucks. So, of course, ticking the "cancer treatment" box isn't something that the non-Munchausen's afflicted among us ever put on our to do list. This wasn't anywhere near the top 30 things I thought would go wrong before I turned 30. Still, I learned a secret about what it's like to deal with cancer, and it's not something I came up with on my own.

After people adjust to the idea that you are sick, their instinct is to put you on a higher plane. They're so impressed with your ability to move through life under the burden of this thing they can't imagine, this worst fate. I get that. I was like that of course, because I lived for 26 years of my life "before."

It makes people feel guilty when they realize they're complaining to someone with late stage cancer about how a manufacturer stopped making their favorite (or, presumably, their fish's favorite) brand of fish food. But I do want to hear about your dumb fish. And hopefully you'll hold my hand as I grow increasingly and righteously upset that Deadwood only aired for three seasons.

But that's what living with cancer is like. It's not living "in spite" of cancer, or "through" cancer, or "above" cancer. It's having it. And it's also having all the other stuff too, the stuff that makes life rich and fun and hard.

Recently, I have had some activity in a metastasis detected in my bones and began undergoing a new round of chemotherapy and radiation. This morning I went to two doctors' appointments where I got dot-sized tattoos on my belly and a Gemcitabine IV in my arm. This afternoon I attended a class at Columbia University in a room full of the people whose global policy plans will define the treatment of human rights issues over the next century.

And then, sometimes, I drop the top scoop of my ice cream cone.

LIVESTRONG'S Chronicles of Courage series has partnered with Athleta for Breast Cancer Awareness month to profile and share the stories of five women's experiences. For every bra purchased, Athleta will donate an Empower bra to UCSF HDFCC. Valid Oct 2-15. Maximum donation of 2500 bras.

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