Trigger warning: Suicidal Ideation
“I’m sorry but this looks like stage III, Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC).” Those were the words that sprung out of my doctor’s lips that ordinary November afternoon.
November 15, 2019 was not supposed to start off with a cancer diagnosis for me, someone who likes to have total and absolute control of the events that occur in my life. This Friday called for warm caramel lattes, bad hair days, and looking over social media feeds, my kinda normal. Instead of the usual and familiar, I got the scary and unexpected: a cancer diagnosis.
I sat in my Oncologist’s office with my legs crossed, palms resting on my knees and eyes gazing at the floor. In that moment, I tried to make sense of the news that was being delivered to me by my doctor. Words like cancer, stage III, and aggressive were distressing. They made me feel like I was sinking in desolation, drowning in fear, and burning with rage. I also felt small and insignificant. To think that all it took was a few minutes for me to go from feeling content, satisfied and as I like to say, “in my element,” to feeling as if I was falling to pieces.
The worst part of that afternoon was that I managed to glance at the window as my doctor started to talk about potential treatment plans for me. To my disbelief, I noticed that the people outside the exam room window were going about their business. It is almost as if, by being told that I had cancer, I somehow expected life in all its form, shape, and magnitude to stop. Egotistical me could not understand why the rest of the world seemed so calmed at the possibility of me dying? “The world would not be the same without me,” I thought to myself.
My Oncologist explained to me that I would require adjuvant chemotherapy, radiation therapy, a mastectomy and breast and nipple reconstruction. But as if all that was not enough, they would also be placing me on one more additional treatment to help preserve my fertility, should I decide to start a family in the future.
I left my doctor’s office that afternoon pondering the best way to deliver the news to my family. No one came with me to pick up my results that day because no one knew that I was coming for them in the first place, at least not my family members. It is difficult enough to hear that YOU have cancer, now imagine delivering that news to your loved ones? I pondered about whether or not to deliver the news for a few hours. After much thought and consideration, I finally let everyone in on the news. Most people can agree that certain topics are better discussed in person. However, words like cancer and aggressive felt too heavy for me to repeat. So, like any devoted social media millennial, I found comfort in delivering the news through a text message.
A couple hours later, I was back home from the doctor’s office and my family was quick to embrace and pamper me for the remainder of the day. It is common to want to help someone that is being impacted by cancer. Those who were not physically close to me took part by providing words of encouragement any time they could. Statements like “you can do this,” “you are the strongest person I know,” “it isn’t your time yet (like to die), you were placed on this planet for something great,” were being told to me.
I appreciated all of the support I received immediately following my diagnosis. But it somehow was not enough to make me feel strong and confident enough to deal with my cancer. People would tell me “you got this,” but a little voice inside of me would ALWAYS say, “no, you don’t.”
Whenever my friends and I would speak about death, I would be the one to say, “so many people are afraid of dying, but I’m not, if anything I’m more afraid of living.” But who was I kidding? I did not want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop. Someone that had just recently graduated from university with an advanced degree, I was ready to embark on my diplomatic career, travel the world, meet new people, try new foods, explore other cultures, and “change the world” in the process. As a new college graduate, I was ready to check off all those boxes, but dying was not one of them. I was ready for everything but cancer.
I am young, ambitious and a go-getter and as a result, I did not have time for cancer. No twenty-something recent college grad has time for cancer. What I did have time for was a job in the medical field, doing a few internships, enrolling in the peace corps, and deciding whether I wanted oatmeal or frozen-yogurt for breakfast? (Frozen yogurt for the win…with extra cheesecake bites, please).
However, now I had bigger concerns keeping me up at night, and what to eat for breakfast was not one of them. It was then in this moment of despair and hopelessness that I began to develop suicidal ideation. While people planned for my care, I secretly planned for my death. I was determined to beat cancer, but not how most people would imagine. I was not going to fight for my life, I was going to end it. I was going to kill myself before the cancer killed me and once dead I intended to say to my cancer, “ha, I won.” I was going to beat this battle my way and suicide was the answer for me.
I was due for another visit at my Oncologist office two weeks after getting my initial diagnosis. Fast forward to two weeks and I was back at my doctor’s office waiting to pick up more results. All I remember from that visit was my doctor saying to me, “I have good news, your cancer has not spread beyond your breast and a few lymph nodes under your armpit. In other words, it is not metastatic.” Something switched up inside of me after that conversation. Almost like an ounce of hope came over my mind and body.
Having stage III cancer is still considered locally advanced. However, knowing that the cancer had not spread anywhere else gave me a sense of hope. My body had been fighting an internal war with cancer for many months without me knowing. Yet even through that internal war, it was keeping me alive, allowing me to walk, breathe, eat. I knew then that there was a reason for me to put up a good fight and try to stay alive for as long as I could.
Was I looking forward to 6 months of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation therapy and 3 surgeries, scheduled 3 months apart from each other? No. Did I want a monthly injection directly administered to my ovaries to protect them from any chemotherapy damage? Of course not. Am I looking forward to five years of hormone therapy followed by frequent scans (scanxiety is real)? Absolutely not. Am I ready to be put on “temporary” menopause, experience night sweats, hot flashes and weight changes? Not in a million years.
But after this visit I had already decided that I wanted to do whatever it took to keep my mind, body and spirit as healthy as they can be. I was not going to allow my body to face this battle alone. Moreover, something inside of me told me that there were still new connections to forge, cultures to be explored, new places to meet, memories to be built and things to love, like Polish Zurek Soup.
Most importantly, there was a world in need of serious change and I wanted to be a part of the solution. Because of cancer, I have learned to live much more in the present, as opposed to the past or my future. Cancer has reawakened a new version of me. Someone who is not afraid to be adventurous. A person who is now able to set boundaries and be herself, unapologetic.
Unlike most people, I started this new decade in 2020 on cancer treatments, extensive surgeries and what seem to be endless doctor appointments. But I grew more accepting of this new agenda, because although my life has been slightly interrupted by cancer, it has not been put to a complete halt.
So here is a note to my cancer: Dear cancer, once upon a time, you came into my life and almost defeated me, left me for dead. Yet, I persist because my resilience for living is stronger than you will to kill me. My time to shine is in the here and now. As a result of you coming into my life, I have become stronger than I ever have been. Now it is my turn to defeat you so, ready or not, here I come.
By: Madeline Rosario