“Just For Now, Not Forever”

May 3, 2023

It was a bright and sunny Tuesday in June of 2022. One of those days where you stare out the window at work, counting down the minutes until you can go and enjoy the almost-summer breeze and warmth on your face. It was June 21st to be exact, I remember because it was the day before my 27th birthday and I had dinner plans that night with a co-worker, who also happened to be one of my closest friends, and our boyfriends to celebrate. My daydreaming thoughts were interrupted by a phone call just before lunch. I peered down at my phone and the hospital’s name showed up on the caller ID. To be completely honest, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, I’d spent the last month or so getting a few ultrasounds and tests for a lump I had found in my breast, but all the doctors I had met with didn’t seem too concerned. “You’re very young, it’s most likely just a cyst,” or, “I have patients in the waiting room who I know for sure have cancer but I’ll send you for a biopsy just to be safe,” were just a few of several opinions. I didn’t even make it three feet down the hall when I heard the doctor say on the other line, “I’m sorry, it’s not good news. It’s breast cancer, you’re going to need chemotherapy, and your hair is going to fall out.”

Taken during a chemo session in October 2022.

I was paralyzed with shock and fear for what felt like forever, yet was only a few moments. My body fell to the floor in the stairwell as the most inhumane sounds came out of my mouth – a mix of sobbing, screaming and hyperventilating. “Breathe for me Seana, keep breathing,” was all I could pick up on the other end of the phone, but my thoughts consumed me. “I don’t want to die. How did this happen? How long has this thing been in me? What am I going to do? How am I going to tell anyone?” Little did I know, I was saying these thoughts out loud, choppy while trying to catch my breath. “Deep breaths Seana, deep breaths. Triple negative breast cancer is treatable and we’re going to make a plan. You can do this.” The rest of that day is a blur.

That was almost 10 months ago. Since then, I’ve documented almost every day between then and now in journals – several journals. Pages filled with dates to keep track of countless appointments and procedures, lists of medications, the side effects I was experiencing with time stamps, entries written in chemo chairs and waiting rooms, details of the dark and isolating emotions that I’d never thought I’d share with anyone else. Writing in these journals became a way of coping with overwhelming emotions, a way to keep me looking forward and not back. Some might say all the writing and daily documenting was “obsessive” and hey, maybe they’re right. But it helped me get through one day at a time, to cope with the glaring stares from others because I was always the youngest person in the room, to document yet another fainting experience from getting bloodwork done because of my life-long fear of needles (what a disease to get, right?). Feeling an emotion and writing it down, it helped me to survive.

Nine months before my diagnosis (September 2021).

A lot of people say, including medical professionals, that positivity is key to getting through a breast cancer diagnosis. I’m here to tell you that and as hard as it might be and as cheesy as it might sound – boy, is it true. In the same breath though, I’ve learned that it is equally as important to allow yourself to fall apart. For example, I wrote about how it felt to lose every hair on my body, the extreme fatigue, the numbness to my left arm and leg, and my loss of independence, all of these valid feelings and side effects, accompanied by hopeful thoughts. These positive affirmations, phrases like, “I know I have the strength to get through this – I have been getting through this,” to, “I have to keep going, I don’t have any other choice,” are a few that maybe I didn’t quite fully believe at the time, but were extremely significant to acknowledging the hurt without completely spiralling. Kind of like faking it ’till you make it. My most used and helpful phrase to get through the pain, one my boyfriend Jeremy and I came up with and repeated to each other often was, “just for now, not forever.”

Keeping a multitude of journals wasn’t the only way I have been able to get through. There’s also the “cheerleaders,” as I like to think of them – loved ones who kept me going on a daily basis. There’s my mom, the funniest, most optimistic, kind-hearted woman on this planet; my dad, a man of few words but oh so witty, loving and supportive; and then there’s Jeremy, without him and his love, I honestly don’t know where I’d be. While there are countless people to thank, these three incredible people saw and put me back together daily — each taking turns bringing me to and from chemo, making me laugh when all I thought I could do was cry, helping me up and down the stairs, getting cold compresses for the hot flashes, making sure I always had water, handling every difficult mood swing, while always making me feel like the most beautiful woman in the world; even with three hairs on my head and a body that had become unrecognizable. They all did this while fighting their own battles, trying to navigate their own emotions, grief and struggles as caregivers that they never shared because they put mine first. These, and a million other reasons that I will never forget or be able to repay, are the memories I hold onto and cherish. There are not enough “thank yous” in the world for that kind of unconditional love — but thank you nonetheless.

The day I shaved my head (2 days before chemo, July 2022).

Having breast cancer at 27, it has undoubtedly changed me. It’s mourning the person I was while simultaneously trying to fight for a new life. It’s being called “brave” and a “warrior” when I feel like I’ve quite literally cried and crawled my way here so far. It’s looking for a support group while you sit alone in tears, trying so desperately to find someone like you but also not wanting to because it means someone else is experiencing this pain, this trauma. It’s screaming alone in my car and silently sobbing in the shower to try and hide some of the hurt from my loved ones. It’s realizing that even though the months of seemingly unbearable pain from side effects were helped by a simple phrase of, “just for now, not forever”, it doesn’t mean that the cancer just magically stops. It doesn’t stop after 16 rounds of chemotherapy, ongoing rounds of immunotherapy, a double-mastectomy with expanders, testing positive for a mutated gene (BRCA1) that without more life-changing surgeries, is highly likely to give me another form of cancer. It’s not finished even after being classified as “in remission,” while you wait for additional scans and mentally prepare to get your chest filled with implants. This part, the part after the active treatment, both the physical and mental, the part of you that changes, that you only really get if you’ve had the shitty luck to experience cancer first-hand, this part is forever.

Each of our stories are different, each one matters and each of us are bound together by this “forever.” Wherever you are in your story, allow yourself to feel every emotion as they come, but most of all, be kind to yourself – you are quite literally fighting for your life. You matter, you are needed, you are loved and you are not alone. And most importantly, don’t forget to breathe. — Seana Shallow

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