Meeting your obstacles: SMC student Stacy Withrow on dealing with cancer

I was roused this morning at 6 a.m. when my alarm went off. I opened my eyes at 6:15. I finally got up at 6:30. It might be easier to start the day, if the onslaught of mental chatter had a delay, but it doesn’t. It starts at about 6 a.m. Some days are worse than others. I’m a returning student in my fifth semester at Santa Monica College and I’ve just recovered from my second surgery after being diagnosed with breast cancer. I work and take classes part time. I have five different doctors to juggle, a relationship to maintain, and two cats to take care of. There are dozens of details that becoming a cancer survivor brings into your life, from surgery mishaps to insurance issues and it all has to be handled primarily by me. My family isn’t very present for my “situation” and I find that most people just really can’t handle it.

Cancer isolates you in a way from healthy people. Even when they want to be there for you, they don’t know how. Its something that’s happening to you, and you kind of have to learn to navigate it yourself.

After the shock wears off, your well-meaning friends will go back to their own lives. For them everything is normal but your life is forever altered.

Day to day living has several new dimensions: the person in the mirror is unrecognizable; your thoughts are all seen through unpredictable lenses that shift at will, and not always pleasantly. There’s no manual for this and there’s a huge learning curve.

In the fall of 2014 I dropped my classes to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I had surgery on Dec. 22. I went back to work on Jan. 17, and back to school in Feb. 2015. Most people take six to eight weeks off work after a Mastectomy but I only took three. Almost immediately I was back in the full swing of my life.

In the last year I’ve managed to have two major surgeries and remain gainfully employed and enrolled at SMC. I got engaged, bought a house, I moved, traveled to San Francisco and New York for work and Italy for my best friend's wedding, and juggled weekly doctor's appointments in between all of this, yoga, and writing papers.

I felt really good about not letting cancer slow me down and for a while it worked. Keeping busy served as a great distraction from the reality of my diagnosis and what it was doing to my life. I’m glad I did this actually because it gave me some distance from the fear that I had buried deep somewhere in the recesses of my psyche.

The reality is that I had cancer in my lymph nodes. If you’re not a biology major, what this means in a nutshell is that I’m at a substantially greater risk of a recurrence, or metastatic disease (which is terminal), than someone who does not have cancer in their lymph nodes. Right now, I do not have any more “visible” cancer in my body but I’m told this can change at any time. Six months, a year, 30 years from now, I can come down with a metastatic diagnosis and if I do, I will eventually die from breast cancer.

I had stage 2b¾ estrogen and progesterone positive, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma. This diagnosis is, how can I say, so-so. It means that I could quite possibly be screwed but I might not be screwed and I’m not really ever going to know unless I come down screwed.

My future is a big, fat, indefinite, question mark.

I still find this to be shocking because I in particular lead quite a healthy lifestyle. I do a lot of yoga. I drink green juice and turmeric shots. I was only 38 and I had, at the time, the lowest alcohol consumption out of all my friends. I meditate. I use organic cleaners. This list is endless actually. I could spend the next two pages telling you all the reasons that this should not have happened to me. But at the end of the day it did happen and I have to find a way to deal with it.

This brings me into the present. It’s November of 2015. I’m in the middle of my semester at school. I’m one year from my diagnosis and currently being initiated by that fear I avoided by staying as busy as possible. Not only that, but I also am dealing with the sadness around loosing my breasts and subsequent sense of femininity. I’m trying to acclimate to the new body I inhabit, while adjusting to the side effects of the Tamoxifen I take every day. My boyfriend and I are struggling to adjust to our new normal and carve out a new way together. I still have work and school.

You know, I realized in my ripe old age of 39 that for every person, life will happen. We will all spend our time here facing challenges. Death is inevitable for everyone; potentially having to face it earlier than expected is a challenge but at the end of the day that’s all it is, a challenge.

I’m afraid. I cry sometimes. I have temper tantrums too. Occasionally I feel sorry for myself. I get angry. But I still have to be present for my relationships and commitments. What else is your life but the relationships and commitments that you make? I’m not going to say having cancer made me a better person, or that something really positive came out of it because honestly in my own life that remains to be seen and I really think its lame to negate an experience by trying to pretend it doesn’t really suck. Cancer sucks. The place I’m at with it right now sucks too. But it will change, because it always does.

I look forward to the change, and I hope in it will be something that makes me feel good. In the meantime I intend to finish school.

I’ve had to bring the pace down a notch to something a little more tolerable while I’m dealing with my health related obstacles but I’m not going to quit and I’m not going to run from this, as if I could. I hate this experience I truly do but someone told me once that in every great challenge is the opportunity to free yourself from something. I haven’t received any spiritual “gift” just yet, so I guess I’m still working on it but I’ll keep working on it. Maybe that’s the point.