In the summer of 2012, I was diagnosed with stage three triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). I was 37 years old and had 5-year-old twin boys, one with severe cerebral palsy. Having a child with special needs, my husband and I were no strangers to hospitals and doctors. Despite those experiences, nothing could have prepared us for the words "you have cancer."
The next year of my life was one of the most difficult, and as I was soon to learn, one of the most inspiring. For my TNBC treatment, I underwent six months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, an oophorectomy and two months of radiation therapy.
On February 13, 2013, my husband and I heard the three most amazing letters ever recited: "pCR." Pathologic Complete Response. The cancer was gone, and I was officially in remission!
We cried, hugged our oncologist, hugged our kids, and embraced each other. We decided at that moment that this was a day worth remembering. The end of my TNBC would mark my cancerversary date. Our own personal pre-Valentine's Day celebration of love and joy.
Celebrating my first TNBC cancerversary by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
When TNBC cancerversary number one arrived in 2014, we decided to go big. My husband and I joined a team of 16 cancer survivors and like-minded cancer-haters to climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro. Kili reaches 19,341 feet and rises high above the surrounding plains of Tanzania, Africa. The experience was life-changing.
We spent a total of eight days on the mountain. Six up, and two down. The first six days were spent hiking slowly towards our goal, at around 5 to 6 miles per day. The slope was gradual until our summit day. Summit Day -- the day we reached the top of the mountain -- was an exhaust-ing and exhilarating 19-hour experience like no other. It began at midnight, with nine hours of steep climbing over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. It culminated with a summit push and 10 more hours of hiking down to a camp 5,000 feet below. The eighth and final day took us back out to the base of the mountain.
Words will never be able to describe the experience and view standing on the summit. However, the true peak of our climb was the camaraderie. The 16 of us came together as a team. We helped each other through exhaustion, discomfort, altitude sickness and pain. We encouraged each other to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other, even when it felt like we couldn't take another step. When one person's load got too heavy, we spread his or her supplies among the rest of us, so the person struggling could hike without the extra weight. We kept each other laughing and we worked together to get each and every one of us to the top. In many ways, the climb was a perfect analogy for the cancer journey. I could not have imagined a better way to celebrate my first year cancer-free.
Running a marathon in honor of my second TNBC cancerversary
As my second cancerversary approached this year, my husband and I once again searched for a goal that seemed out of reach. We eventually settled on the idea of attempting our first marathon at Disney World in Orlando.
We prepared for months, devoted many weekends to long runs and hobbled around on sore legs as evidence of our effort. While it was hard, we once again felt empowered when we achieved our goal. Crossing that finish line released a flood of emotion and remembrance. It was determination and effort, followed by sheer joy. We experienced discomfort and suffering, but the ability to push through that adversity was affirming in so many ways. Celebrating this success with our family at Disney World made the entire experience that much sweeter.
So, why are cancerversaries important? For me, it's a way to celebrate life and the strength of the human spirit. It's a time to remember the lessons I've learned from cancer. To appreciate each moment as a gift.
My team of doctors at MD Anderson saved my life, and I have no intention of wasting it. That is why I will always celebrate February 13 as a reminder of how fortunate I am. How grateful I am, for another year of this amazing life.