How long have you been thriving and what type of cancer were you diagnosed with?
In December 2013, I was diagnosed with stage 3b, bi-lateral, ductal infiltrating, ER+/PR+ breast cancer in both breasts and had a double mastectomy in January of 2014. My right breast had an aggressive form of cancer and my left breast had a tumor that had grown into my nipple. During diagnosis, I found out I was BRCA2 positive. My mother died of breast cancer in 1991; I was too scared to get genetic testing myself and deeply regret my fear.
Describe the day you completed your last cancer treatment.
Because I had cancer on both sides + sentinel lymph involvement – essentially, double-dipping in the shitty cancer pool – I think they hit me with harder than most and as a result, I had a rough time with treatment. Radiation was horrific and ran from 1-to-2 ½ hours. My last day of radiation treatment felt like I’d finally, against all odds, crossed the finish line; however, instead of raising my arms above my head and breaking the tape in joyous accomplishment and triumph, I felt like I drug myself over the finish line while leaving parts of me on the track behind me. It took several weeks to finally realize and accept that this long phase of my life was done and I was still alive and still feisty.
What steps have you taken since that day to rebuild and resume your life?
I’ve learned to accept that I’m human and that I might need a nap before I take on the world. I’m more true to myself. I’m prone to say yes to something that I’ve never done before and to actively seek out rather than postpone joy. I no longer feel guilty if I need a night in or if I want to stand over the sink eating nectarines until the juice runs down my chin in a very unladylike manor. I make sure that my friends and family know how much I love and cherish them. I’ve always been a pretty healthy eater, but I’ve since increased my plant-based diet and decreased the animal proteins, including reducing my beloved Greek yogurt intake. I savor sunsets more and shared moments of joy. I also forgive more easily and give in to full belly laughs. And I always carry a fan to help with my “I’m too young for this” hot flashes.
What are your favorite websites, books, and groups that have helped you rebuild your new life?
Seattle’s Young Survivor Coalition and the women in group have helped me tremendously. Engaging with women who are my peers and are somewhere on the cancer continuum has helped me to learn what to expect and to get advice from women who are my age and have some of the same struggles that I’ve experienced. I also benefited from reading Jacci Thompson-Dodd’s WHOLE: 12 Principles for Rebuilding Life after Breast Cancer as well as Glenna Halvorson-Boyd and Lisa K. Hunter’s Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer.
What obstacles have you found in reentering your personal relationships?
Post-cancer, I have intensity and joy that I didn’t previously possess. I’m a softer, more reflective person who no longer puts her needs last. I reach out to others and try to return the support and generosity I received. My friends and family relationships have deepened and become better, with the noted exception of a once very-close and cherished best friend. During treatment, she went dark and stepped out of my life when I needed her most.
When I was first diagnosed, a friend told me that there will be first responders and builders; and over time, people will peal off as they need to reconnect with their own lives. I understand and I forgive her for disappearing, but it hurts when I think about it. Since none of us know how long we have, you learn to let go and accept loss and change. I feel almost compelled to not let myself sit too long with sadness; it’s too familiar and too undesirable.
In this new world, I’ve also befriended many other breast cancer survivors.
There is a deep shared understanding between us; though along with the connection forged from cancer, comes the knowledge that we’ll be weathering and experiencing loss between us.
What has been your personal hidden toll?
I’m having a hard time accepting my limitations. I want to do and experience ALL THE THINGS but I tire more easily and no longer have what felt like a bottomless pool of strength/energy. And, unlike almost everyone I know, I’m single and child-free. It’s been humbling and difficult to realize that I cannot do everything on my own and to accept my limitations. At the same time, by accepting the gracious and generous help of friends and family, it’s forced me to realize that I’m not alone. I’m afraid to lean on others because when that help goes away, and we all know that everyone needs to return to his/her life, I’m left with a greater sense of loneliness and fear. When I wake in the middle of the night and want to turn to someone for comfort, it’s just me (and my cats, but let’s not go there as I don’t want the “crazy cat lady” label, eh?). I want to be vulnerable, but ultimately I cannot. So many women with cancer have a husband, partner, wife to help them; I just have myself and it’s challenging to learn how to both be vulnerable and strong at the same time.
What do you wish everyone knew about Thrivors?
With so much focus on active treatment and surviving surgery, chemo, and radiation, there’s little to no focus on helping women through the rest of the post-cancer continuum. Realizing that not only is your body forever altered, but also your head, heart, work, and relationships are changed. Knowing and connecting with other women who get it and that the changes in thoughts and lifestyle are paramount.
Josephine Lowry has always been a glass half full person. After her December 2013 diagnosis of aggressive cancer in both breasts, she celebrates that there’s a glass. Josephine hopes to use her creativity, gallows humor, and experiences as a single, child-free, mid-career woman to connect with other women in the cancer continuum.
When she isn’t having parts of her body removed, Josephine is a project manager and artist. She’s a Washington State Leader with the Young Survivor Coalition (YCS) and lives in Seattle.