Raising Awareness and Hope
Today is #worldcancerday – a day meant to raise awareness of this silent but deadly disease about which we know so little. Because really – cancer can impact anyone (like me!). And a diagnosis can hit you out of the blue (hi!).
I’m lucky – I’m here, and I’m doing great. Mostly. But I have learned that cancer really doesn’t have much to do with luck; it isn’t necessarily this terrifying, unknowable thing we have made it out to be.
While there is still so much that is unknown about the disease and rates are rising year upon year, there is more research being published every day about prevention, treatment modalities, and healing methods that there is much hope for the future.
Because from what I have learned and as I continue to put the pieces together, I am becoming increasingly confident about how cancer began to develop inside me – a healthy, active 30 year old. And in hindsight, there were warning signs that my body was in trouble.
The silence is killing us
Before I dive into my own story, I want to highlight some alarming statistics for the purpose of raising awareness – why we all need to care and learn more about this disease. It impacts every single one of us, directly or indirectly. Knowing the hows and the whys will help us stem the rising tide that is threatening to drown us. I promise it’s not all doom and gloom from here (again, hiiii!)!
According to worldcancerday.org, “Currently, 8.8 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, out of which, 4 million people die prematurely (aged 30 to 69 years).” In the US, the National Cancer Institute estimated that in 2016, “1,685,210 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 595,690 people will die from the disease.”
Yet, the overall death rate fell by from 2004-2013 by 13%. How is it that death rates can fall while more and more people are being diagnosed and dying from the disease? Well as death numbers rise, so do diagnosis rates, and the rates of people who survive the disease – like me! – is altogether on the rise. We get hit by the beast, but we get through the beast. (Check this out for an in-depth explanation of the cancer death rate.)
Again, back to that idea of ‘there is hope for the future.’ But it’s still scary. Because the underlying truth is that – survival rate aside – more people are diagnosed every year, forced to grapple with the terrifying uncertainty. And total numbers of cancer deaths are still on the rise. Sooo even if the death ‘rate’ is falling, that doesn’t mean the numbers are, at all.
My cancer story
So my own cancer story began at the age of 30. The star of the show (me) regularly did hot yoga, ran in the nice weather, was on her 8th year of following a healthy vegetarian diet, traveling, and getting out and about when her scheduled allowed. I had a good job, was applying my skillset, and was living it up in New York City.
But then I got the scan. Looking at me, you’d never have been able to guess I had a growth the size of a grapefruit in my chest. I’m pretty small as human beings go, and there were no odd protrusions from my body. Impossible, right? Nope. That thing had just started taking up the space in my chest typically reserved for my lungs and heart and other vital organs. No big deal.
How did that happen?? Well to be honest, it kind of explained why I had been starting to feel more and more off, less and less on top of my game. I was stressed to the hilt, anxious, and dealing with insane insomnia. I was unhappy with my living circumstances, had experienced an insanely awful and stressful roommate situation, and was forced to move to a new place with no time to spare (because hi I had to escape the crazy!).
This new place turned out to have construction next door, right outside my bedroom window. Once the warmer weather hit, I noticed that a black film settled onto our surfaces if we left the windows open. I was breathing in construction dust on top of NYC pollution. On top of that, one day our bathroom ceiling fell down because of a leak upstairs, and lots of black stuff came down with it…. black mold? The landlord denied it. But yes, I was in the bathroom when that damn ceiling fell down. Out of the blue, I had a sharp pain in my stomach that month that almost forced me to go to the ER. I laughed when the operator suggested yes I needed to go there if it could be life threatening. Death, hah! I’m a yogi. I’m healthy. I didn’t go.
And that job? Well I was beginning to feel less and less challenged or engaged, and more and more stuck. The commute was often stressful, and my hours were often socially prohibitive. My beautifully decorated bedroom was my little haven – but if I was honest with myself, I felt like a prisoner of this life that I coming to despise.
Suffering in Silence
While I’d been dealing with stress, anxiety, and insomnia for months, I figured I just had to stick with the yoga and wait for the darn construction on the building next door to end. I had to wait for a new year, things would get better. I’d feel better after my trip to Croatia.
Things only got worse. I dealt with heartbreak and loneliness and everything felt out of my control. I hit complete and total burnout one day, about seven months before my diagnosis. Fatigue to the point where I had to call out of work – my instinct told me that if I got in my car, I wouldn’t make it. I was bedridden yet still struggled to get a solid sleep.
Things went up and down for several months after that, but I pushed through to keep up with my job. I negotiated my responsibilities with work. We restructured my contract. But winter hit, and the pesky colds would not get better. I had slight pain in my chest at the start of December, which we wrote off as pleurisy, a slight inflammation of the lung lining. Several rounds of antibiotics did little to help me feel better.
Last Ditch Efforts
I went to Costa Rica one long weekend in February, thinking I just needed a little sunshine and adventure to improve my mood. The next week, I contracted a cold going around work and could not shake it for weeks. It got to the point where I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded. One day, I had to stop and catch my breath walking down a long city block.
It got to the point where I couldn’t lie down on my side or my back when I slept, and at that point I knew I had to go in. This pleurisy was only getting worse – rest was doing nothing. My instincts told me I needed to get my lungs scanned, so, convinced I had a pulmonary embolism or something, I called my doctor and said I needed a CT scan that day. Sure enough I got one, and the rest, well, is history.
You could read this and say ok, how on earth is this supposed to help? I basically just described how much my life sucked in the months leading up to my diagnosis. How stressed and exhausted I was.
But that’s exactly the point. My own symptoms were insanely subtle. And I didn’t realize how toxic my immediate environment really was.
The only thing I knew was that something was off, and that I was unhappy. I wasn’t proactive enough about the insomnia, because I didn’t want to go on drugs. With my background in psychology and yoga, I felt like I should be able to fix it myself. I suffered in silence, feeling like I was failing at my life. Stress, exhaustion, and insomnia are far more life-threatening than I realized. Cancer takes advantage of a suppressed immune system and inflammation in the body, and stress and insomnia do a tremendous amount to compromise our immune system and cause inflammation.
And I suffered in silence.
While I could balance on my hands, internally my body was so out of whack I could barely function.
So the moral of my story is listen to your body, don’t ignore the subtle signals, and take proactive steps to help bring your body back to balance.
Detox your body.
Remove toxins from your environment.
Don’t push through your stress and exhaustion – take steps to get them under control.
Find natural sleep aids.
Go to a doctor to get your nutrient, mineral, and hormone levels checked.
Seek help if you feel anxious or depressed.
Seek social support. #noonefightsalone
And remember: lighten up! Laugh and be grateful for every moment. Don’t lose your joy because life throws you some curveballs, be joyful in spite of it!
Sending light and so much love,
If you have any questions or personal concerns, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.