Over the past 40 years, I’ve had a very involved and unbelievable history with cancer. Having fought cancer not once, not twice, but eight times — and successfully — it’s needless to say that I’ve battled long and hard to be a survivor. Luckily, I’ve also been blessed to have great medical care that supported me throughout my journey. And yes, along the way, I’ve learned a few things.
As a multiple cancer survivor, I've faced the possibility of death numerous times. But I survived those cancer diagnoses and continue the battle through metastatic disease even today. When you’ve lived a life like mine, what you learn along the way can help get you through the next day. Here are some life lessons I learned while living through my multiple battles with cancer.
Lesson 1: Know your family history
As a young woman of 27, the last thing you expect to hear your gynecologist say is, “Your test came back positive. You have cancer.” Your heart jumps into your throat. You fear you’ll pass out because you can’t breathe, and yet, your autonomic nervous system kicks in and you gasp for air. Then, a thought pops into your brain: Your grandmother was diagnosed young, dying just a few months later. She wasn’t this young, but would I soon be dead?
This is how my first cancer diagnosis played out. After taking a few deep breaths, the deer-in-the-headlights-fog cleared from my brain and I quietly asked my gynecologist, “What did you say?” When the doctor repeated the diagnosis a second time, it wasn’t any less stressful to hear, but now at least I was able to breathe and think.
I tried desperately not to panic. It was also hard to convince myself that being my grandmother’s helper when I was 11 years old didn’t somehow bring about this cancer. I didn’t “catch it.” I did, however, realize that I inherited it from her through my mother’s genes. Knowing this family history didn’t change my reality, but it did make it easier to digest the facts. It also gave me the will to fight for better medical care that was not available to my grandmother 16 year earlier.
Lesson 2: Learn more about your diagnosis
Knowing my grandmother’s story encouraged me to fight to ensure I would survive. That meant asking questions. First, I wanted to know: What exactly was my diagnosis? Was there information available that would help guide me through this battle?
I started calling family members asking for details about what my grandmother had and what treatment she received. I also visited the public library and the resource center at the hospital to find as much information as I could. Of course, some of it was quite scary, but I also learned a lot of the information available didn’t apply to me. That was a relief! In today’s world, information is close at hand on the internet — sometimes too much so. I often caution other cancer patients to be sure to learn what applies directly to your own individual diagnosis without getting dragged into the quagmire of unrelated information.
Be sure to use your medical team as a resource as well. In my case, my primary care physician was a wealth of information. He explained many of the technical terms about my diagnosis I didn’t understand. He also strongly suggested I get a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis as this would help me sort out my options.
Lesson 3: Evaluate all your options, and fight for what’s right for you
Having talked with my family doctor and the specialist, I moved forward with the second opinion. Then, I made a list of the medical care available in my town. I asked what options I had based on my insurance and financial situation. Would I be able to afford the treatment I needed to survive? Would it be better to cut out the tumor or remove the entire organ? Would either option save my life? Which option would give me the best quality of life after surgery? Which option would ensure the cancer didn’t return — at least not in the same place?
I was happy to learn the insurance plan I had paid for over the years covered the surgery I needed. But it was also a fight to get what I wanted and felt I needed vs. what was recommended. Because of my age, I was told not once, but twice, that I was too young to have the surgery I wanted to have. The medical community recommended removing just the tumor. I wanted my uterus removed.
This was another point when evaluating all of my options carefully, and doing what was right for me, was extremely important. I went into battle mode. I contacted my family doctor again. I changed specialists to ensure I had a doctor who supported my decisions. I got their letters of recommendation. I requested previous medical records that substantiated my concerns. I submitted my appeal to the insurance company. I demanded the surgery I felt would best serve me and save me.
The appeals board, fortunately, made its decision quickly — partly because of the aggressive nature of my grandmother’s cancer. They agreed that if I did, in fact, have the same exact type of cancer, I didn’t have long to live. I jumped for joy and cried like a baby when I read the letter granting approval for payment for the surgery I wanted. This experience was proof that I had to be my own advocate, even in times when I was fighting against the grain.
Lesson 4: Remember lessons learned
These first few lessons were learned during my first battle with the “Big C.” They were lessons that became clearer to me as I was diagnosed again and again with different cancers. And yes, there were more lessons to be learned as time went on, which is why I’m also glad I kept a journal throughout the process. It helped me to remember what I learned each time and how I managed the diagnosis. It helped me remember how I communicated with the doctors and the insurance company. And it also reminded me to continue fighting for what I wanted and needed.
Lesson 5: Know your body
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned throughout my life is to know my body. Most people are only in tune with their bodies when they feel sick. But it’s important to know what your body feels like when it’s well — when there’s no sign of disease. Knowing what is normal for you will certainly help alert you when something changes and when that something needs to be checked by a doctor.
One of the easiest and most important things you can do is to get an annual checkup, so your primary care physician can see you when you are well. Your doctor will then have a baseline against which symptoms and conditions can be compared to see what’s going well and what may indicate there are problems looming. They can then appropriately monitor or treat you before the problem gets worse. Again, your family’s medical history will also come into play here. Your doctor will know what conditions, if any, for which you face an increased risk. Things like hypertension, diabetes, and, yes, even cancer can sometimes be detected before they become a major hazard to your health — and your life! In many cases, detection can also play a role in successful treatment.
Cancer has been a constant in my life, but it has yet to win a battle. I’ve learned many things as a multiple cancer survivor, and I hope to continue to pass on these life lessons that have largely helped me be here today. “The Big C” has taught me a lot about life and myself. I hope these lessons help you get through your diagnosis a little easier. And better yet, I hope you’ll never have to get a diagnosis at all.
Anna Renault is a published author, public speaker, and radio show host. She is also a cancer survivor, having had multiple bouts of cancer over the past 40 years. She is also a mother and grandmother. When she’s not writing, she is often found reading or spending time with family and friends.