“My Voice” by Rosie Blankenship

Rosie Blankenship - 'Survivor'

Like most Irish-Americans, I feel like St. Patrick’s Day is a fun little holiday that was created just for me! I spent most of my school years in a St. Patrick School, which gave us a great excuse to make March 17 a really special day. We learned Irish-American songs. We looked forward to our 8th grade year and the opportunity to perform in the traditional St. Patrick’s Day play. We repainted the shamrock in the intersection near the school. In my young adult years, it was imperative to spend the day at a local bar that had a longstanding tradition of serving green beer to match their kelly green walls. If we had enough green beer, pretty soon we would be speaking with a brogue and calling each other Finnegan. I rarely forget to celebrate and if I happen to go out of the house without a green item of clothing, I get a “pass” on pinching because of my green eyes.

St. Patrick’s Day has always been for me a day of celebration tinted with green. In 2006, though, the day became tied with another color: pink.

On March 17, 2006, at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. It was a bizarre day. In the morning, I paced back and forth in my doctor’s office in front of my then-husband knowing I was minutes away from terrible news. A few days earlier, I had seen the way the mammogram tech’s behavior had shifted when she saw my scans coming up on her monitor. She went from chatting to put me at ease to serious silence. I knew it wasn’t normal that I had a biopsy 10 minutes later. I knew the doctor who performed the biopsy was hedging when he said there was an “area of concern” when I point-blank asked him if it was cancer. I knew, too, it was bad when my doctor’s office had called at 5 p.m. the previous day, asked me to be in the office at 9 a.m. and to bring someone with me.

I went from getting the official diagnosis at my doctor’s office to the bank to sign off on paperwork for a home equity loan. We needed some work done on the house and we had a good financial plan in place. The loan still left us with plenty of equity, plus we had enough discretionary income to pay it off within three years. Although I knew my diagnosis was serious business and I knew chemo was in my immediate future, I just wanted life to go on as normal. After the bank appointment, I tried to go to a St. Patrick’s Day party, but I had to leave. It was time to go home and collapse.

I didn’t cry that day, but I did walk around in a fog. When I told my parents, they seemed to handle it well, which helped. I was all business for the next few days. I felt like I was preparing myself mentally for what was about to happen. I was very positive. I wouldn’t let others feel sorry for me. I was going to make quick business of this cancer nonsense and get on with my life.

I quickly had a lumpectomy to remove the two centimeter tumor, only to wake up to find that I’d had a 10 cm by 9 cm by 6 cm area removed. I wasn’t happy about the physical results (which resulted in my full D-cup being reduced to a moderate B-cup), but I hung in there, telling myself it was more important that we get the cancer out. Then, the surgeon called with the results of surgery: my margins weren’t clean, which meant they didn’t get it all. He was recommending a mastectomy.

I went to pieces.

All of the resolve I had to “fight!” melted away. I was tired already and I was only at the beginning. Everything seemed riddled with problems and pain. I was already tired of doctors, tired of hospitals, tired of medications, tired, tired, tired.

To summarize a very long, sad tale (the same tale most cancer survivors have, I’m sure!), I patched myself together the best I could. After a second opinion, a third opinion and a fourth, I ended up in the care of an oncologist at one of the foremost breast research facilities in the world (IN MY OWN FREAKING BACKYARD!!!). I also ended up with a well-known and well-liked surgeon. I went through a round of fertility treatments to collect eggs, which resulted in 15 embryos. (At the time I was diagnosed, I was planning to have another child. I could not get beyond this radical change in my plans.) Then, I had chemo. During a little more than two years, I had eight surgeries, including two separate mastectomies and reconstruction.

The road has not been easy. Sometimes, I made it harder on myself than was necessary. (Yeah, that’s the way I roll.) Other times, well, it’s just the same stupid battle all cancer survivors go through: testing, treatment, medications, surgeries, rinse, repeat.

To say that my life was sidetracked by cancer is like saying “touching the sun could burn you.” In March 2006, I was married with a beautiful daughter, excitedly hoping to have another child soon, had money in the bank, had equity on my home and thought I was doing pretty damn good for myself. In less than 18 months, I was completely broke, in debt to my eyeballs, my marriage was gone and so was my husband, and my hopes of having more children were destroyed.

I was an overweight, middle-aged woman with unruly chemo-curl hair and one breast. I hadn’t been on a date in 14 years. I was suddenly navigating the day-to-day of being a divorced parent – a lifestyle I had never hoped to pursue or even considered as a possibility. It had all happened so fast. Many days, I couldn’t even recognize my own life. Hell, most days I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror. Who was this woman with curly (CURLY!) hair, scars all over her body, a broken family and no money in the bank? Somewhere along the way, I also had gone from being a person who was very private about her personal struggles to a public blogger who shared her intimate pain with others. Who was this person? I sure as heck didn’t know.

No, my life wasn’t sidetracked by cancer: it was redesigned and rerouted in every possible way.

I know that I am a survivor in every sense of the word. I’ve survived far more than what cancer had to throw at me. However, I’m not always sure what the label means to others or whether I deserve the weight of it any more than the average person walking down the street. It’s ridiculous to me to think that because I got a disease (against my will and knowledge) and followed my doctor’s orders that somehow I am special. So far, I’ve been lucky that the disease hasn’t come back. I followed the same treatment many friends followed and the disease came back for them. Until we have a better understanding of this awful disease, the only explanation for this is sheer luck. Survivor guilt sucks.

I am not special. I am just here. And as long as I am here and I have this label attached to me, I’m going to use it to help others affected by this disease. Whether it’s through sharing my stories, providing support for women going through the more difficult parts of treatment, openly talking about the sexual side effects of treatment — whether they are physical or emotional — when doctors don’t give the information people need on this subject or just blogging so that caregivers can maybe understand a bit more about what this experience does to people, I’m going to make the best of the label. I am never going to stop moaning and complaining about the ravages of this disease. I live in fear of what the future may have for my daughter, so I’m not going to stop being a public nuisance on the subject of breast cancer and all of the other cancers running through my family until they are cured and preventable. If I stand up 100,000 times and say, “I was 34 when I was diagnosed. Someone please figure out WHY!” and it inspires someone to do that, then it has all been worth it.

I also am going to use the survivor label to remind myself every day that my life has tremendous value. Human beings are fragile and on this Earth for a very short time. If there is a chance my time is going to be shorter than average, well, then, I’m going to have a blast while I’m here.

I am often told that people admire my strength. This blows me away because throughout this experience I have often been weak, in body and spirit. I am often propped up on my journey by my wonderful family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. (I would never have survived treatment without my friends at the Young Survival Coalition bulletin boards or my Unitarian Universalist church community.) I have terrific people in my life and I know that it’s through them I am able to continue on, even when I truly don’t have the strength to go further. I think everyone has this ability, but many people choose not to tap into those resources — choosing instead to distrust people or to only see the bad in humanity. We have to learn to ask for help — be it anonymously on an online board or from a friend or neighbor. We have to choose to see the good in this world and embrace it. I think this is how we become strong.

People also tell me they love my humor. I have to admit — I don’t mind hearing that! I love to make fun at the ridiculousness of life. When I launched my blog four years ago, I named it, “Someday, we’ll look back and laugh” (at the suggestion of a reader) because I really do think there is humor in everything, when given enough time to heal from the bloodshed! It’s not all about humor because, well, life truly is hard. But I do think you have to keep a sense of humor. I will rail against the religion of positivity any day of the week, but I am a big believer in the healing power of humor. You have to be able to laugh when a particularly nasty chemo drug is spilled next to your chair, the pregnant nurses on the floor are evacuated, and a nurse in HazMat gear is sent to clean it up, while the very same drug is being pumped directly into your heart. Oh, sure, it was laughter bordering on nervous hysteria as I thought about how dangerous my treatment was, but it was laughter — and I swear to you I will tell that story to my grandkids.

I used to absolutely rage against the idea of being a survivor. When I asked how we would know the chemo was working, my oncology nurse said, “when you die asleep in your bed when you are 100 of something else, we’ll know it worked.” That’s how I used to feel about being labeled a survivor: I won’t know until I die at 120 (that’s my goal) of something else that I was a cancer survivor. (Well, since I’ll be dead then, I guess that means I’ll never know, but it can be a footnote that one of you adds to my Wikipedia entry.) But now, I’ve come to accept it’s just the terminology used in the cancer community. As a young survivor, issues of survivorship are extremely important to me. I really do want to live 86 years past my diagnosis age. If I’m going to get there, I’m going to need all of the work the amazing organizations (such as Livestrong) are doing to address long-term survivor issues and promote research in these areas. If they need a label like “survivor” to collectively refer to all of us who went through or who are in treatment for cancer in order to further their work, then I’ll be counted as a survivor!