It took me awhile to start thinking of myself as a breast cancer survivor. I think that’s partially because I was so fortunate to have it caught early. If you’re diagnosed with stage three cancer, there’s no question you’re in a fight for your life. Because mine was technically stage zero, and safely ensconced in my milk ducts (for now, at least), I felt kind of sheepish thinking of myself as a survivor. I finally realized that while I may not have had to go through chemo to battle a cancer that had spread, I had to take action to prevent reaching that point. Five surgeries later, I feel like I earned my survivor status.
Then I started wondering when you mark your anniversary. Cancer is kind of up there with weddings, births and deaths—the dates tend to stick with you. But cancer has multiple milestones, so which one do you choose? Is it the day you were diagnosed? Or the day your cancer was surgically removed? The day you learned you were in remission, or the day you had your last chemotherapy treatment?
I asked a breast cancer survivor this question when I interviewed her for an Omaha World-Herald article I was writing on how survivors give back. She said she had that same question when she started attending A Time To Heal, an Omaha-based rehabilitation program that is designed to help women regain their physical, emotional and spiritual health after breast cancer treatment. She said they told her you become a survivor on the day you’re diagnosed. The National Cancer Institute agrees that this is when you become a survivor.
I prefer thinking of my anniversary as the date my cancer was surgically removed with a mastectomy. It might seem like a gruesome date to commemorate, but it’s the day I became cancer-free. A friend of mine, who had her five-year anniversary in October, said she also marks her surgery date.
The decision is a personal one, and you can choose which day you want to observe as the day you joined the ranks of survivors. You can choose not to commemorate it at all. But never doubt that you earned the right to call yourself a survivor.