Mind & Spirit

What it means to be a cancer survivor

By: Jill Buchner
What it means to be a cancer survivor

Courtesy of Trisha Kelly Author: Canadian Living Credits: Courtesy of Trisha Kelly

Mind & Spirit

What it means to be a cancer survivor

By: Jill Buchner

One woman tells her story of coming to terms with her breast cancer diagnosis and finally embracing the title of "cancer survivor" at the Relay for Life.

When Trisha Kelly walked the cancer survivors' victory lap at the 2015 Flamborough, Ont., Relay for Life, the whole experience felt surreal. Coming to terms with the disease was a challenge right from the diagnosis and there, at the Canadian Cancer Society's annual community fundraising event, where teams of loved ones come together and walk to show their support in the fight against cancer, she was being recognized as a person who had beaten cancer. "The entire journey for me has been like an outer-body experience," says the single mother of three. "I never thought this would be my life and where my road would travel."

The breast cancer diagnosis
It was April 2014 when Trisha, then 42, first felt a pain in her breast—a highly uncommon side-effect of breast cancer. One night, while lying in bed, she rubbed the spot that was hurting and felt a small lump. "I tried not to worry. I thought it was just irritated tissue, but I went to see my doctor," she recalls. Her doctor sent her for a mammogram and then, when the results showed a suspicious shape, an ultrasound. "It started to worry me," says Trisha. The ultrasound showed an irregular mass with uneven borders—a red flag for Trisha's doctor.

She was sent for a biopsy and spent a long two weeks awaiting the results. "That was stressful," says Trisha. "I think in my mind I was preparing myself for what it was going to be. I did a lot of debating—‘No it's not. Yes it is.'"

On April 29, 2014, her doctor told her she had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. There was a 1.8-centimetre tumour growing in her breast, beginning to invade tissue around it.

"You hear the word 'cancer' and you think death," says Trisha, who's aunt died of the disease at age 48. "That's what we've known in our family. So I was scared." She remained strong as she told her loved ones the news, but put off telling her kids, who were then 17, 14 and 11. As the time passed, it weighed on her and she knew she had to talk to them. Telling them her diagnosis was the first time she let herself break down. "My older daughter was very strong and very positive. My younger daughter cried immediately and my son didn't say a word," says Trisha. "Once I got over telling them, I felt like a weight was lifted off me. It was our journey—we were going to do this together."

The treatment
In the weeks that followed, Trisha's family and the community around her became her support team. After her lumpectomy, during which a rapid-growing now stage 2 tumour was removed, she began chemo and radiation. Her parents moved in to help with the kids, her eldest daughter took on extra responsibilities like shopping for groceries and her youngest left her uplifting notes around the house, reminding her to be positive and stay strong.

When her hair started falling out, Trisha's best friend came over to help her shave it off. "I remember standing up and looking in the mirror and going, ‘Oh my god, I'm a cancer patient,'" says Trisha. "I wasn't afraid of losing my hair, but it was just seeing myself that way. My reflection said, ‘You have cancer.'"

Today, Trisha is still undergoing treatment, as she has five to 10 years of hormone therapy to do, but she is cancer-free. "I still struggle with the idea of recurrence. I hear stories like mine where the outcome wasn't as good. It's hard to grasp why that happened to them and it didn't happen to me. Or I think, that could have been me," she says. "You don't hear about people who had cancer and 20 years later they're still here. I'm trying to focus on that. I'm trying to be that person."

At the Relay for Life, surrounded by her team of 25 family members and friends, Trisha finally felt like a survivor. For her, there is some sadness in the event—she remembers lost loved ones, like her aunt—but it's really a celebration of all the people who helped her get through it and who continue to support her and others affected by cancer.

Her team raised $5,332, and this year they're heading out again to raise more. "If they didn't have all the knowledge they have from people donating over the years, I wouldn't be where I am right now," she says. "So if I can help just one person going through what I went through, that makes it worthwhile for me."

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Mind & Spirit

What it means to be a cancer survivor

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