How I Became a Cancer Survivor
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How I Became a Cancer Survivor

I had just been diagnosed with cancer when I closed up our family cottage for the winter. I wasn't sure I'd be alive to open it again the next year.

I recently came across an interesting online survey that asked breast-cancer patients, "When do you become a survivor?" The participants picked from these multiple-choice answers: at diagnosis, after surgery, at the end of treatment, after your five-year checkup -- or whenever you say you are a survivor. More than half chose "whenever you say you are." I agree. I became a survivor the moment I felt sure I was going to live.

My journey started on October 10, 2011, when my family doctor of 32 years, who is also my friend, called to tell me the results of my breast biopsy. Her words weren't clinical. She just said, "Denise, it isn't good." Through the years she's often called to give me test results, but this time she was on the verge of tears. I asked her if my cancer was stage IV. She said, "I don't know yet." From that moment on I knew I was in for a rough ride.

I had an appointment at the University of Michigan to get my official diagnosis. But first I needed to visit our family cottage on Lake Erie, the place where my loved ones had spent so many happy summer weekends, birthdays, and holidays together. I was craving a peaceful place to think and, on a more practical level, I had to close up the house for the coming winter. When I arrived I was overwhelmed with memories and emotions. I especially thought of my beloved dad, who'd always been healthy and active until he got pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in the fall of 2000 and by the time we reopened the cottage the following spring, he was gone. It was devastating then and still is hard for my family to be at the cottage without Dad. But he's always with us in spirit, and we talk often about his love of wildlife, his big, generous personality, and his caring ways.

Dad and I were always a team when it was time to close the cottage in October and reopen it in April. He did most of the work and I would be his helper. If he needed nails or duct tape, I was the "go get it" person. Each autumn he nailed the side door and windows facing the lake shut with wooden boards to prevent the Ohio snows from blowing in. He drained the pipes, emptied the hot water tank, shut off the furnace, and flipped off the electricity, all to protect our cottage from the frigid winter cold.

After my father died, I took over his cottage duties, and I always dreaded having to nail those boards alone. Dad was a home builder for 40 years and knew how to handle a hammer; let's just say my hammering skills left a lot to be desired. Now, getting ready to close up the cottage again made me think of endings.

I sat down in the chair where my dad used to look out over the lakeshore. I thought about how grateful I was to have such a wonderful, close family. My mom, nearing 80, was active and in good health, but I knew my cancer diagnosis was going to devastate her. I always thought I would be the person to take care of her, but now she was going to have to take care of me. My sister, Diann, and I were best friends and talked almost every day. After her divorce, I helped raise her three children, and I adore them as if they were my own kids. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving them behind.

I began to write notes to my mom, to Diann, and to my niece and nephews, so they would know what to do in the spring if I wasn't there. I told them how to deal with the electrical breakers, test the air conditioner and furnace, fill the hot water tank, turn on the water, and how to carefully remove the nailed boards without damaging the cottage siding.

As I wrote each note I sobbed. Several times I had to start over because the ink was smeared with my tears. By the time I finished, I had notes taped all over the cottage. Then, in a letter that I left on the table in front of my dad's chair, I told my family how much I loved all of them and how sorry I was that I had to leave them. As I drove away from the cottage that day, I knew it was time to face my very uncertain future.

Two days later a breast surgeon from the University of Michigan Multidisciplinary Breast Care Clinic told me my diagnosis: stage III invasive ductal carcinoma that had spread to numerous lymph nodes. In her professional yet comforting manner, she told me that the five-year survival rate was quite good. However, I would need to have a mastectomy of the left breast, five months of chemotherapy, 33 radiation treatments, a year of the drug Herceptin, and then reconstructive surgery. My diagnosis was daunting, but I had been given the gift of hope.

Then the realities of cancer treatment set in. After recuperating from the surgery, I began chemo in the dead of winter. The side effects were so gruesome that at one point I told my oncologist I wanted to quit treatment and didn't really care if I lived or died. My wise doctor said he wouldn't let me quit and promised that the different drug I'd be starting soon would be much easier to handle.

It was, and somehow I kept going. Five months after my diagnosis, on a beautiful spring day, my sister asked if I wanted to take a trip to the cottage. I'd been so ill I hadn't been out of the house in three months except to go for treatments, and she thought it might cheer me up a little. She was thrilled when I said yes.

As we drove, Diann and I started to laugh and joke over silly things only sisters understand. Signs of spring were all around us. Birds were returning to the area, the ice had melted off the lake and I started to feel a renewed sense of hope.

Because of all I'd been through (plus a touch of chemo-brain), I'd forgotten about the notes I had left at the cottage. When we arrived I unlocked the front door and walked into the house. It was cold inside, yet the sun was streaming through the tall kitchen windows. I spotted several of the notes. My sister, following right behind me, stopped at the table and picked up the good-bye letter I had addressed to the family. As she read she started to cry, then so did I. It hadn't hit me until that moment how lucky I was -- and how scared I had been. Diann gave me a big hug and told me how grateful she was that I had weathered the winter. "Just like the cottage," she said, and we both laughed.

That lovely spring afternoon was the moment I became a breast-cancer survivor -- not just because I said I was, but because I felt sure I was going to live.

Denise McCroskey appreciates the tremendous support of family and friends during her year of breast-cancer treatment. Now she's blogging and shares what she has learned with other women who have been diagnosed. She says she no longer dreads closing up the cottage in the fall because she's grateful for each day of life.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.