Upside Down

Rethink is honoured to be the guest editor for Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue, which is dedicated to highlighting the struggles of life after cancer diagnosis.

Here is Courtney’s story.

I was 23 and pretty care-free. I had myself my dream job as a Grade One teacher, wonderful family and friends who celebrated each other’s successes, a love for travel and a loving boyfriend. We had grand plans on me moving from my home country of Australia to America, to build a life together.

But cancer didn’t care about that or my future plans.

In August of 2019, my life was turned completely inside out. I was lying in my bed and felt an unusual lump, like an olive situated just underneath the skin on my breast. I am an over thinker at the best of times but since I was still living at home, I went and asked my family what to do. They suggested that it is best to get these things checked, rather than worrying about them.

That night my mind went crazy with thoughts like, “It can’t be. Don’t overthink this, it is probably just this time of the month. I am too young. Everything will be fine.”

The next day the doctor gave me a breast exam and said the lump felt suspicious, however, it was unlikely anything to worry about as there was no family history of cancer and of course, my age.

The following weeks were a complete blur of scans and specialists—complete with many shades of bruises (thanks to all the poking and prodding) and finally, with my diagnosis. Grade 2 HER2+ Ductal Carcinoma. At 23.

I was not prepared for the whirlwind that was about to hit.

Immediately, I was confronted with making decisions about my future, like fertility. The two weeks prior to starting chemotherapy consisted of injecting myself in the stomach every night and twice every second day for the last six days, to begin my IVF cycle. I had a huge fear of needles and had to overcome it quickly. I was lucky enough to have successfully retrieved seven healthy embryos.

My treatment plan consisted of fortnightly treatment of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide (the really, really strong stuff or as I call it, the red stuff) for two months. I then moved to weekly treatment of paclitaxel, paired with the drugs Herceptin and Perjeta (targeted therapy for HER2+ patients), which will continue to September), followed by surgery. All together my treatment plan was projected to be a year-long process.

I felt completely helpless and overwhelming guilt that I was putting my family through this. What had I done to deserve this?

The nausea, blurred vision, hot and cold body flushes, aching bones and joints, hair loss and fatigue were just some of the side effects I experienced. The best advice that I received was, “do not try and fight the side effects, the prescribed medications are there for a purpose, so take them!”

Confronting my hair loss when it began to fall out in clumps was emotional and something I was not prepared for. I wanted to take control. So, I selected a date and got my lovely Dad to do the honours of shaving my hair off. It was a significant moment, as it was the first moment where I looked like “the cancer patient.”

I hid my bald head with my gorgeous wig and head wraps until I could come to terms with what was happening. Eventually, I accepted the way I looked, and I was proud to show my bald head because it signified my strength, resilience and fight.

I had come to terms with my bald head, but I really struggled with my rounding face and body. I tried my hardest to eat healthy and exercise when I could but I struggled with my body image and loving myself. I dreaded hopping on the scales to get my weight checked for treatment. I was told that it was the medication, but this didn’t help. It is still something I struggle with. However, I am persistent and making sure that I am living the healthiest and most active lifestyle I can.

After extensive research and pages and pages of questions answered by my surgeon, I choose a double mastectomy with immediate tissue expanders. At 23, I never expected that I would have to decide to have a major part of my female body removed, but the pros outweighed the cons. The reoccurrence and survival rates were enough to help me make my life-changing decision. All I wanted was to live. It was also pleasing to know that I could have nipple sparing surgery. This was a huge relief. I never knew how much nipples meant to me before I had to decide whether they were worth keeping or not.

Post-surgery, the emotional and physical pain (I had four drains) was all worth it. My pathology results came back completely clear.

Nobody is ready for cancer. It is a huge diagnosis that everyone handles differently. At first, I became quite withdrawn, as I did not want to put the burden on others around me. People around me also responded in a range of ways. Some withdrew, which was hard to understand at first, and others were there by my side each step of the way.

When the post-treatment blues kicked in, I talked to my young cancer friends who have been a huge support. They said they struggled the most when treatment and appointments started to slow. Even with the most amazing news you could receive, being ‘Cancer Free’ didn’t feel this way. I thought to myself, ‘Why can you not just be grateful and happy and go back to normal that you are now cancer free?’ I just continuously felt so anxious. I kept getting people congratulating me for beating cancer and being so brave, strong and resilient. I really didn’t feel that I was worthy of those words at the time.

Some comments that stung were from people that I thought were close and understood. “You’re healthy now, you can go back to normal.” But what in the world was normal? I know that I cannot live in fear of cancer for the rest of my life, but it is also a fear that will be in the back of my mind forever.

Cancer turned my world upside down. I needed the security of having my specialist and doctors close. My plans for moving abroad were halted. The relationship that I thought would last a lifetime could not withhold the strain. It was a lot for two people in their early twenties to endure. Distance and sickness.  

Cancer has taken a lot from me, but it has also given me so much. It has made me appreciate the small things that life has to offer. As cliché as this sounds, I wake up each day with a newfound appreciation for life. I am so grateful to be here, I love life, and I seek to be grateful each and every day. – Courtney Graeber

Click here to read more stories from Wildfire Magazine’s Identity and Aftermath August issue.

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