scorecardI no longer have breast cancer, but emotionally, I'll forever be dealing with having had it twice
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I no longer have breast cancer, but emotionally, I'll forever be dealing with having had it twice

Rachel Garlinghouse   

I no longer have breast cancer, but emotionally, I'll forever be dealing with having had it twice
LifeScience3 min read
  • I've had breast cancer twice and went through chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.
  • I was finally declared NED — no evidence of disease — but I still worry about it coming back.

The worst day of my life was a steamy July afternoon. I strolled into a medical building with an iced coffee in my hand. This wasn't my first breast lump. The previous two, both removed surgically, were deemed harmless.

Unfortunately, this time was different. The doctor walked in, asking me if we had a nice family vacation. Her pleasantries quickly gave way to a sentence I would never forget. She told me, "I never like to tell women this, but you have breast cancer." The biopsy doesn't lie.

Getting my first — and 2nd — diagnosis

I was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer during summer 2017. The kind of breast cancer I had, ductal carcinoma in situ, was contained — or so we thought. After an MRI and another mammogram, I had a mastectomy and implants placed in the same surgery.

I thought my battle was over, but the pathology report following the surgery showed I was actually stage 1. The cancer was so small that it went undetected. Two tumor boards — or a gathering of oncologists — determined I didn't need further treatment.

I again figured I was done with cancer, but I was again wrong. Three years later, I was very ill from my breast implants. As I prepared for my explant surgery, I felt a tiny mass in my chest wall. We started the process all over again: an ultrasound, a mammogram, a biopsy. It was cancer — again.

This time, I needed two surgeries to remove the cancer, which were thankfully successful — but my doctors and I decided to pursue chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. To be stage 1 twice is lucky. I wasn't going to take any chances this time. I dove headfirst into a year of grueling treatments.

Battling cancer twice over a five-year period is absolutely exhausting. People love to deem me "inspirational" since I openly share my cancer journey on social media — I'm told all the time how brave and strong I am — but truly, I'm just as broken as the next person.

I'm now cancer-free, but I still deal with the trauma

After surgery, I was declared "no evidence of disease," or NED, which I am incredibly grateful for. But even though I don't have breast cancer anymore, it still has me.

I've worked relentlessly to disempower my cancer trauma. I've been in therapy for years, even taking a break from cognitive-behavioral therapy to pursue eye-movement-desensitization and -reprocessing therapy. I exercise every day, eat healthy, meditate, pray, and prioritize sleep. I also find it healing to urge women via social media to do self-breast exams and schedule their mammograms.

Yet no matter what, I cannot erase the past that brought me to the present. The smallest ache or pain sends me into a spiral of anxiety. I find myself wondering: Is my cancer back? I worry all the time whether I'm doing enough to keep my disease at bay.

I often tell people that cancer is a beast, a jerk, a thief, and a liar. It wants nothing more than to destroy, like a villain in a superhero movie. Cancer will stop at nothing. It simply doesn't care how educated, kind, or busy I am. It is lurking and haunting.

Survivors cannot just "get over" or "move on" from cancer. This isn't how trauma works. Many of us live in a space of precarious hopefulness. Though we would love nothing more than to throw all caution to the wind and dance in a field of flowers with a rainbow in the sky, that's not our reality.

Every time I wait for scan results, have more blood drawn, or watch a doctor's hands examine my flat chest, I hold my breath. Will I be OK and for how long? Am I safe? Am I healed and well, or am I sick? Only time will tell, but for now, I will keep fighting for hope to outweigh trauma.