At the time I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, life was good. I had just celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary and won an award at work. It was an exciting time with many milestones.
But when my oncology team told me that the cancer treatment would include chemotherapy, followed by radiation and multiple surgeries, the celebratory feeling faded away.
When you realize the amount of time treatment is going to take up, it's overwhelming. I was scared. It's a lot to go through, physically and mentally.
Celebrate the daily victories. Remember, you're a warrior. These small everyday victories will turn to weeks, then to months. Before you know it, a year will pass. You'll look back and be in awe of yourself as you realize how strong you've been through it all.
You're worth celebrating
When you hear that you have cancer, you feel frozen. Vacations, family events, and anything else is put on hold. Your focus is now on your treatment and getting better.
But life hasn't stopped. Not only will you have to manage your cancer treatment, but you'll also have to work so you can pay the bills and take care of your house and family.
Going through cancer treatment is a lot. You're fighting for your life. On top of that, you have to manage your day-to-day life still. Everything you accomplish is worth celebrating. You're worth celebrating.
A couple of weeks into chemotherapy, I got a blood clot in my jugular because of my port. I didn't know if I'd be able to do my treatment. The thought of missing a treatment gave me a lot of anxiety. I feared that if I skipped a week of chemo, my cancer would spread.
I remember this celebratory moment so clearly. I was sitting in the oncology exam room, assuming my nurse was going to tell me that my treatment was canceled because of the blood clot. But the door opened, and I could hear music playing.
The nurse walked into the room dancing. She grabbed me by the hand and led me to dance. It was time to celebrate. My counts were up, and I was in the clear for chemo!
During treatment, stop to reflect on all you've done. Your body is working overtime, fighting for its life. Each treatment you complete is a victory. Celebrating each little victory is how I got through 5 months of chemo.
Celebrate how you want
Everyone is different. Figure out what brings you joy. What (or who) can make you smile on a bad day?
Maybe it's your favorite food, a shopping trip to your favorite store, a walk with your dog, or going somewhere peaceful like the beach or a lake. Maybe it's getting to see a close friend. Whatever makes you the happiest is how you should celebrate.
I had two ways of celebrating. First, before treatment, my husband and I would go out for ice cream or dessert.
I was hot all the time during chemo. Between hot flashes, night sweats, and living in the south, the heat was too much. I needed relief. Ice cream was a big comfort to me. I had always loved ice cream, but during treatment, it became much more.
After dinner, my husband and I would walk to a local ice cream parlor and order the most delicious flavor on the menu. I remember how good it felt to have something so delicious and comforting.
Second, after treatment, we'd stop somewhere fun on the way home to take a victory photo. I completed another round of chemo!
Each time on the ride home from treatment, my husband and I stopped at the halfway point. We needed to stretch our legs and use the restroom.
The halfway point to home is at the border of North and South Carolina — a place on I-95 called South of the Border. It's such a gem.
It became a tradition to stop there each time I completed a treatment to take my picture — rain or shine. I would send the photos to my family and friends who were praying for me.
The photo symbolized that I had conquered another round of chemo and was on my way home. I always had a smile on my face.
Find someone to celebrate with
A key component of celebrating is having someone to hold you accountable. There will be days you don't feel like celebrating, and you'll need someone to hold you responsible.
There was one time I felt so bad on the drive home that I couldn’t fathom stepping out of the car. But my husband insisted we stop for a photo, so now we have a photo of me sitting in the car at South of the Border, smiling.
He made me take a photo, and I'm better for it. When we got home, it felt like we completed a challenge and were victorious.
Through the photos, my family and friends were able to celebrate with me, too. Even though they weren't with me physically, they'd send me text messages asking for updates and asking when I would be able to send the photo.
I didn’t feel alone. I felt loved and celebrated. One friend even told me about how much it meant to see that even though I was going through a hard time in my life, I still had a smile on my face. She said, "You deserve to have some fun."
Celebrations bring calm during the storm
Unexpectedly, celebrating brought a bit of stability and consistency to the chaos of having cancer. On treatment days, it was nice to know that, despite the uncertainty of blood work, breast checks, and any changes in my treatment plan, I knew no matter what I'd get to eat delicious ice cream at some point.
Celebrate even when you think there’s nothing to celebrate. There was a time during chemo that my blood work showed my body couldn’t handle treatment. I was frustrated. I felt defeated and like I let myself down somehow. But I still celebrated.
It's especially important to celebrate on rough days. Your body is amazing. It's working hard to fight your cancer. Celebrate your body!
Whenever I talk to someone who is newly diagnosed, I recommend coming up with a plan of how they want to celebrate, so they have something to look forward to.
There's a lot of uncertainty during cancer treatment. Having something to look forward to — something that's consistent — is comforting. It makes the days seem doable for me. And if I can do this, I promise you, you can too.
By celebrating little victories along the way, you'll be reminded of how strong and brave you are.
Liz McCary was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at 33. She lives in Columbia, S.C., with her husband and chocolate lab. She’s the vice president of marketing for an international commercial real estate company.