Well, I did it! I reached THE milestone. Yep, on February 11 I reached my five-year anniversary as a breast cancer survivor.
Rene was at a work-related conference in San Antonio, so I was home alone, which didn’t creep me out; however, his absence reinforced how it takes a village of two for the Simard household to function properly. Since it snowed (again!) during the night before the big day, I got up 45 minutes earlier than usual, then ventured outside to shovel sidewalks. After pulling on my furry white snow boots and gearing up to face Mother Nature’s wrath, I walked out the garage service door, dreading the task ahead.
Much to my stunning surprise, though, when I closed the door behind me, I realized the world was completely still as I shuffled across the driveway through what felt like 4 inches of baby powder. I felt at peace in the pristine beauty of freshly-fallen snow, and I wished the epic moment of tranquil darkness could last forever. I said a silent prayer of thanks while I effortlessly glided the snow shovel along, remembering the queasies of chemo nausea whenever I smelled coffee or jet fuel, the stare-downs with strangers over my baldness, and the creepiness of the closed suction drain that hung from my side under my left armpit for two weeks after lumpectomy surgery.
Although I am committed to remaining positive, let’s face it. My 2015 was unpleasant. Okay, it sucked. But it changed my life. On the day after I was diagnosed, I had my first-ever MRI, a breast MRI to determine the exact number of tumors. After plopping face-down on the MRI table and being pushed backward into the tube that reminded me of the inside of an irrigation pipe, I gave myself the first of many pep talks to help me cope with trauma-induced anxiety. During my ponderance of the opportunity to wallow in perpetual self-pity, I decided to embrace the opportunity to be brave. That’s right, from Day 2, I viewed breast cancer as an opportunity.
This photo is of me at my second opinion consultation with the cancer docs at the UCHealth Diane O’Connor Thompson Breast Center in March 2015, unhappy about the stereotypically ugly pink smock and tired of being poked and prodded. I had already had half my hair cut off because I thought it would help make the thought of losing all my hair easier to accept.
Who was I before February 11, 2015? Those who knew me then say I was the one behind the scenes, getting things done, making others look their best. “I think you exceled at putting the chess game together — in work and in your charitable pursuits — but you weren’t the person necessarily holding the microphone,” says one of my dearest friends.
During treatment, I was annoyed, achy and fatigued 90% of the time, elated or confident 9% of the time and “fine” 1% of the time. More feedback from another cherished friend: “I’ve literally never met anyone more resilient than you, and this came across so purely during treatment. You were informed, you were determined, and you were always optimistic. I distinctly remember sitting at lunch with you during treatment and you endeavoring to poke fun at the process and make me laugh!”
Rene says that before cancer I was a quietly strong and committed woman. “During and after treatment, it was Diane’s resilience, passion and determination that came bursting to the surface,” he says. “I am in awe of how she has embraced life and inspired by the positive impact she continues to make on me and others.”
These days I ponder what might have happened if my mammogram in early February 2015 had not picked up on something in my left breast that appeared to be “clustering.” My oncologist has admitted I likely had breast cancer for several years, but the tumors were too small to be detected during my annual mammograms. What if the largest 2 cm tumor hadn’t been noticed five years ago? Then what?
Many have told me to focus more on gratitude than pondering the unthinkable. But I am a realist, so spending time on “what if” is a priority. I haven’t blogged on my weird dreams lately, but I still dream at least once a week about being lost in a shopping mall or cruise ship with no way out, facing an approaching tornado, standing in an imploding house while walls start crumbling, or watching in frozen horror as floodwaters begin to rise.
The difference in my dreams after surviving cancer is that I now attempt to avoid the pending danger. I walk up and down staircases, attempting find a way out, or I begin screaming for help (thankfully not out loud), usually calling out my oldest brother, Randy’s, name.
I have become a fighter, doing everything in my power to live a healthy life in peace, to be tactfully candid in my messaging, and to offer insight, love and hope to others. Most important: I have finally stopped trying to be perfect and accepted myself for who I am. Warts and all.
In other news, Rene and I are in the final phases of home upgrade hell, and this year our basement is getting a makeover. When the house was built in 2004, homebuilders were in the “paint all the walls beige” phase, which I can no longer stomach. “I’m a different person now. I need color!” I pleaded to Rene three years ago when the project launched. Our painter, Josh, is now re-painting the walls of our guest bedroom. I’m calling it the Tommy Bahama bedroom, because I chose a deep coral for the walls with white on the trim and ceiling. He started by painting the oak bedroom furniture white.
The day Josh started painting the guest bedroom walls, I worked late and got home after dark, well after he had left for the day. After throwing down my purse and office gear in the mud room, I raced downstairs to have a look. I smelled fresh paint as I entered the bedroom and turned on the light.
The walls were pink. Not dark Pepto-Bismol pink, but breast cancer pink with a tint of peach. Tears began to well in my eyes. Rene got home a few minutes later, and we stared at the walls for several minutes, trying to decide whether we could live with it.
Finally, I decided to text Josh and ask whether he could switch to a darker shade for the second coat that was more coral and less pink. He responded right away. “Oh hey, I meant to leave you a note. “What’s on the walls is a pre-primer, and yeah it looks really pink. I’ll start with the coral color tomorrow.”
Mild panic attacks still happen, but life goes on. And yes I still and will likely always hate pink. The traumatic triggers from the color I call “breast cancer pink” have taken up permanent residence in Diane Simard’s brain.
And oh by the way, I have never dreamed about cancer.
P.S. The cover photo for this blog post is of my family back in Grand Island, Nebraska, who attended a cancer fundraiser soon after I was diagnosed. From left to right: Judy and Leonard Williams (he’s a fellow survivor); my sister-in-law, Lisa Faaborg; my sister Marilyn Williams and her husband, Russell; my niece, Kayla Peters; my nephew, Eric Williams; and my brother, Lee Faaborg. Aren’t they awesome?