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1 year ago
4 Cancer Survivors Describe How Being in Remission Messes with Your Mind

A cancer diagnosis is always devastating. And this year, more than 231,000 women in the U.S. will have their doctors tell them that they have breast cancer, according to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Treatment is painful, both physically and emotionally—and even after recovering from a mastectomy or finishing the last round of chemo, it's not until women hit the five-year mark of being in remission, meaning they're medically considered cancer-free, that they can more fully breathe a sigh of relief. (According to the American Cancer Society, doctors use the five-year point as a benchmark to assess a patient's survival outlook.) Here, four women, who've been in remission for different amounts of time share what life is like after cancer. 

Photograph courtesy of Kathleen Henrikson

Kathleen Henrikson
"It's been three years since I've had cancer, and I'm 46 now. After my initial diagnosis—I had a small tumor that hadn't spread—I talked to a lot of people, I went to Bright Pink, I did my research online, and even though doctors said the cancer wasn't too worrisome, I wanted to do something more so I wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of my life. That's when I decided to not do radiation, but to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction.

"But once all your surgeries are done and everyone gives you the green light that you're going to be okay, you do start to worry down the line: If this could happen to me, what else could happen to me? That's something I've been dealing with lately. I don't worry that I'm going to get breast cancer again because I feel like I've done everything I can not to, but you think, "I never expected to get breast cancer, and I did, and now what else is going to happen?" You worry about future diagnoses—and like I said, I'm a worrier to begin with. Every stomach ache you get, you think, 'Am I going to have stomach cancer now?'

"I've talked to many women, and they think it's almost like post-traumatic stress disorder. A couple years later, you're like, 'Holy cow, what happened to me?" You kind of start absorbing it years later.'" 

 

Tracey Birdsell Photography

Dana Donofree
"I hit five years from my diagnosis in February, and it's been five years since I finished up treatment in September. Getting diagnosed with breast cancer, especially at such a young age—I was a day away from turning 28—was a real reality check of what was going to be important to me moving forward. When I hit my five-year cancer-free mark earlier this year, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I didn't realize I was harboring all this anxiety, angst, and anger at my cancer until I hit that landmark. I think waiting to get to that five-year mark does cause a lot of anxiety. I've met many very fabulous women who sadly are no longer here with us.

"I have a different mindset now, but it's tough because life is still life, and I'm young, and I'm starting a business—AnaOno Intimates, a lingerie line designed to fit women who've had mastectomies. I can't switch off the part of me that loves to work, but I have been able to make adjustments. I try to manage my stress on a different level. If I find myself getting way too stressed out, now I'm like, 'Hey, chill out.' Before, I would just keep working through it and go until I crashed.  You've only got the time that you have today, so I don't put as much pressure on myself anymore. 

"When I hit my five year cancer-free mark, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders."

"My friends and family worry that me being so close to cancer all the time through my work isn't so healthy for me, but honestly, I believe so much in giving back. This is my one little chance to help a woman feel a little bit better about herself in her journey. That one little piece, it keeps me going. On the days when I feel like crawling under the covers, I'll read an e-mail from a woman who got one of my bras, and she'll tell me her experience, and boom, I'm out of bed. So for me, work is also part of my healing process." 

RELATED: This Woman Is Tattooing Her Breast Cancer Survival Story All Over Her Body

Photograph courtesy of Janece Shannon

 

Janece Shannon
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 when I was 49. My first anniversary of being cancer-free was the hardest because I was so afraid doctors would find something. But when I got to my fifth year, I felt I would be okay. That's because I had a wonderful role model—my aunt—who went through the same thing I did. She's a 40-year breast cancer survivor and will turn 92 soon. 

"I've always been pretty conservative, but after my cancer went into remission, I started doing things I normally wouldn't have done, like parasailing. This December will mark 10 years in remission. In May, I held a huge fundraiser for the Avon 39 Walk to End Breast Cancer, which I had done three times before, to celebrate my diagnosis, remission, and 60th birthday, which was in September. I didn't really get to celebrate my 50th since I was in cancer treatment at the time. I've made this my year of celebration. I have a friend flying in to see me in December, and we're going to have a girls' weekend."

RELATED: 6 Women Share How Getting Cancer Completely Changed Their Life Perspectives

Photograph courtesy of Nicole Seagriff

 

Nicole Seagriff
"I have known about breast cancer my entire life. My grandma passed away when my mom was four, my aunt was sick for a good 10 years when I was growing up and passed away when I was in graduate school, and my mom—on the right in the photo above—was diagnosed when I was 16. Due to my family history, I went in for genetic testing and tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation. I was still shocked when I found out I had breast cancer when I was 26 because the women in my family were all diagnosed in their early forties. 

"I've been cancer-free for the last three and a half years, and thinking about the five-year mark is really interesting for me because I never thought I would have cancer even at the age I'll be when I hit my five year cancer-free mark. But I feel that the decisions I made were the most drastic actions I could take to really decrease my chances of reoccurrence. Having a mastectomy at such a young age isn't easy, though. I don't have a husband yet, so the partner I meet is going to have to be on-board with this. I can't breastfeed, which as a primary-care provider—I'm a nurse practitioner—is something that was important to me. But I do find comfort in the fact that I did everything I could do to decrease my chances of having my cancer come back. That offers a lot of peace.

"I never thought I would have cancer even at the age I'll be when I hit my five year cancer-free mark."

"Given that I work in the health-care industry, I think it's important to educate people about breast cancer—it doesn't just impact older people. I'm involved with The Pink Agenda, a nonprofit organization that focuses on young professionals to raise money for cancer research. And I joke with my mom that we've become breast cancer buddies—we actually had our mastectomies done by the same surgeon at Sloan Kettering, exactly 10 years and five days apart. I was lucky to have her as an example—seeing how she got through things, it really comforted me to know that I could do it, too."

 

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