I’ve thought of my different stages of awareness — from not having gone through the experience of cancer or knowing someone who has been diagnosed, to losing family members to the disease, to then being diagnosed myself. Each stage was sort of forced into my life. No one wants to deal with cancer.
I knew my great-grandmother had died of breast cancer at the age of 49, but no one else in my family had been diagnosed with breast cancer since. I was not directly exposed to the disease and no one in my family spoke about it.
I visited my doctors regularly because I was a bit of a hypochondriac. Doctors didn’t talk to me about cancer because my great-grandmother was three generations behind me, not close enough for me to worry about it (a myth!). But I also didn’t care much about educating myself on cancer, even though I knew it existed and that it could happen to anyone. Maybe I thought it couldn’t happen to me.
As I got older, others in my family started to get diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancers. I thought cancer was a death sentence, especially after losing my grandmother so quickly to ovarian cancer. She was living in the Dominican Republic at the time (1990’s) with limited resources and was immediately diagnosed as terminal. This created a fear in me which forced me to be more aware of cancer.
Then my great-aunt (my grandmother’s sister) was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still thought, “wait, this is a 2nd generation behind me so I should not worry.” My great-aunt died at 59 from metastatic breast cancer. I thought breast cancer was only one disease and so there was no reason for me to learn the details – it would have been too painful for me. I was scared enough after witnessing what she went through.
Later, I did some Walks, including the Revlon Walk which “supports all women’s cancers,” I thought. I even put together teams to raise awareness and money for the cause. However, I still did not research the organizations I was supporting. It felt easier to follow what others were doing because that was the type of awareness society was comfortable with. That I was comfortable with. During my walk I remember thinking, “I am walking for you,” without realizing cancer could hit me too.
Then came my time to get diagnosed with breast cancer. Shit just got serious. First thing I thought was, “I am going to die,” because no one else in my family had survived. I thought I was next. I moved fast because I believed that would make a huge difference. Reached out to Dr. Google every day to interpret my pathology report (bad idea). However, I did not research about metastatic breast cancer because that wasn’t related to my case. I mean, my cancer was caught early, plus I was negative for the BRCA mutations. I chose not to overwhelm myself with more information than I needed to deal with the situation at hand.
I joined an online forum during my treatments — a group of over 200 ladies and a few men. I knew their stories. Some were very similar to mine. Some of them eventually faced stage 4, and then died. I was exposed to a lot of information my doctors didn’t tell me — how sometimes tests aren’t accurate, or how having clear lymph nodes doesn’t mean my cancer won’t spread, for example. This pushed me to learn more about my disease. I realized then that the story of my breast cancer was only half told. It was not fun to learn all the facts about my disease. It added a burden of awareness I didn’t have before, but one that was important for me to know.
Since then, my other great-aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my great-uncle was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Next, my aunt was diagnosed with leukemia. Then, my dear cousin Glenny was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer this year, which took her life. All on my grandmother’s side of the family. Now I am eager to know everything.
So, I’ve come full-circle on awareness.
Educating yourself can make a huge difference on what decisions you make about your health. We often don’t advocate for things we think will never happen to us. We want to believe we will never face cancer, but even if we don’t, we can’t forget our family, our friends, and other women and men who are dying from this disease. We can’t deny awareness adds a burden to one’s life but sometimes that burden is necessary in order to achieve progress.
I now realize we are all in this together, regardless of our current health status and regardless of our cancer stage.