Life After Breast Cancer

Five women who've been there share the unexpected ways that cancer has changed them -- body, mind, and soul.
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Cancer taught me to slow down.

-- Nicole Vazquez, 37, diagnosed three years ago

Vazquez was found to have Stage 2, triple-negative cancer when she was 34. She had chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy, radiation, and breast reconstruction. One year later, Vazquez became manager of corporate sponsorship at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She lives in Dallas.

September 11 is an even more meaningful date for me than it is for most other Americans because that was the day in 2006 when I first felt a lump in my left breast. A week and a half later I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and was told to start chemotherapy immediately. My doctors said I couldn't even wait long enough to harvest and freeze some of my eggs so that I could have kids one day. First I spent 24 weeks on chemo to shrink the tumor, then I had a mastectomy.

I've always been a confident, upbeat person with tons of energy and I wasn't about to let cancer get in my way. So four weeks after my surgery, there I was, back at work full-time, even though I was getting daily radiation treatments. My colleagues would ask, "How are you doing, Nicole?" and I'd flash a big smile and say, "Great, great." I was determined to be Wonder Woman.

And for a year I managed it. Then one day I simply crashed. I went to bed and slept for 10 hours. For a couple of months it was all I could do to drag myself to the office every day. Eventually I realized that my body was telling me that I needed to slow down and reflect on the enormity of what I'd been through.

It was also telling me I needed to set new priorities. For years my first concern was my job; my personal life had to fit into whatever space was left over. And I'd crammed that space full of frantic activity. I'd taken all the ingredients of a successful career -- efficiency, drive, achievement -- and applied them to my nonwork life, never once stopping to figure out what I really wanted.

These days, what I want is at the top of my list. And sometimes that's sleeping for 10 hours straight or just vegging out in front of the TV. If I don't have the energy to do something, I admit it to myself and don't commit. The same goes for work. I'll put in long hours if necessary, but there are times when I have to say, "Not today."

If cancer does nothing else, it teaches you the importance of having a support system. I'd always prided myself on my independence, so it was hard for me to ask for help. But I realized that it's okay to rely on others -- that, in fact, people feel honored when you allow them to lend a hand. And once I started accepting my limitations and truly paying attention to my own needs I became much more sensitive to the needs of others.

Today I counsel other women under 40 about the importance of early detection. One of the first things I tell them is, "You don't have to be Wonder Woman." Happily, I now realize that neither do I.

Continued on page 2:  Cancer gave me the guts to be myself.


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