Survivor Stories Aftershocks

crack in concrete wallAftershocks, that’s what I call them. Those sudden, jarring reminders that I’ve twice danced with cancer and lived to tell the tale. 

Most days, I forget that I’m a cancer survivor. Honestly, I was never good at wallowing, and my attention span is, at its best, “in the moment.” 

On a typical day, the alarm blares, and I begrudgingly wrest myself out of bed. I have breakfast, go to the office, socialize, work out, and spend time with my family, all the things I’ve always done. And, each day, I find time to laugh, joke, sing (badly), and cook (exceptionally well). So, when I’m “in the moment,” it’s easy to forget the pain, the sickness, the pallor, and the baldness that once existed in and around my body. Those memories are hidden away deep in the crevasse of my mind, coated with a fine layer of dust. 

As I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I note that I look pretty good. I look normal, not like a “cancer patient.” This allows me to fool my psyche into believing that all those little aches and pains really are just age related, and not due to the aromatase inhibitors that will continue to permeate my body for the next decade. But then there are the days when I notice a new acquaintance eyeing the scar my chemo port left behind. I feel the floor beneath me buckle, and, suddenly, I’m hyper-aware of the quaking, the aftershocks. 

The biggest aftershocks arrive every six months when that little pop-up reminder on my phone tells me it’s time for a follow-up with my oncologist.

The aftershocks also like to arrive when I fill out any sort of health history paperwork – for dentists, aestheticians, tattoo artists – all those over-copied papers so eager to capture and file the red flags that will have to be navigated while I’m in someone’s care. Occasionally, they hit me when I’m clothes shopping, and I have to remind myself that most apparel is not designed to flatter reconstructed breasts. However, the biggest aftershocks arrive every six months when that little pop-up reminder on my phone tells me it’s time for a follow-up with my oncologist. Those can still bring me to my knees. 

Even since I was first diagnosed, I’ve been able to separate myself from my illness. You see, with writing my book, which is a memoir about fighting cancer, keeping a current blog about the ins and outs of survivorship, and helping newly diagnosed women navigate a cancer diagnosis, cancer sort of became my second job. And I became quite adept at keeping the tremors at bay. Cancer was what I did. It was never who I was. It may seem strange to view it like that, but my disease never defined me. It was just another part of my uniqueness, like having curly hair, or freckles, or crooked teeth. 

At 38 years old, I was diagnosed for the first time with stage IIA ER/PR-negative HER2-positive breast cancer. I had no idea what any of that meant. All I heard was an astounding list of medical terms that I never thought would be applied to me: ductal carcinoma, lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemotherapy, DIEP flap, radiation. These words echoed amidst the thunderous roar of an earthquake that created a chasm in my right breast, and another in my perfectly imperfect life. 

But as chasms do, they filled in and healed; they became less obvious. And though I knew where the fault lines lay, and what could trigger them, I learned to circumnavigate them, and I watched as they eventually faded into the landscape. 

Then, five years later, I was diagnosed with a new primary breast cancer. The seismic activity rumbled once again. But, by then, I had a better understanding of how to adapt to the tremors and stand my ground. 

Even now, the aftershocks still come. But, these days. I anticipate them, and they leave me less shaken. 


Jennifer LukowiakJennifer Lukowiak is a breast cancer survivor living in Charlotte, NC. She is the author of Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? How a Fashionista Fought Breast Cancer With Style. You can learn more about Jennifer at TheFashionistaFights.com, find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/DoesThisOutfitMakeMeLookBald, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @_bellajenna_.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2017.