How Cancer Has Forever Changed Me

 BY: LIBBY RILEY

On July 16, 2020, I received a phone call at 8:04 pm that would change our lives forever. The phone call was from the Breast Center with the results of the biopsies that had been done 2 days prior after my annual mammogram showed 2 suspicious masses in my right breast. I have said it multiple times over the past 13 months that I NEVER in a million years ever thought that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, I have learned that you can never say never. 

Woman smiling with breast cancer art in background

In the past year, I have had 45 different appointments with at least 9 different doctors, 15+ scans, tests, or biopsy procedures, and 3 MAJOR surgeries with one more (and I pray my last) that I will be having in 2 days. I have lost every organ in my body that made me a female and have had to cope with that loss. I am on 6 different prescription medications as well as 4 over the counter medications.

I am NOT the same person who I was on July 16, 2020, and I never will be.

Cancer has forever changed me; in some ways, it has been a positive for me but in other ways, a negative. A cancer diagnosis tends to bring your life into perspective and cause you to separate the IMPORTANT from the TRIVIAL. It has forced me to face my mortality and to be hyper-vigilant about my health AND my husband & boys health as well. There have been many times that I sit at night in our family room watching TV with my husband and wonder if I need to start writing things down for him & the boys, just in case. YES, it does cross my mind and many times the statements that I have prefaced with “if I ever get hit by a bus…..” now get prefaced in the back of my head with “if I die from breast cancer”. I have never had a medical directive until my mastectomy surgery. Now I do. It is on file with the hospital, a copy lives in our safe, and a copy with my sister in New Jersey. Again, just in case. 
I have learned how to refocus my anxiety and fear of recurrence (sometimes I do a better job at it than at other times) and have been told by cancer survivors that those feelings lessen over time, but people say that about death too; so, I’m not sure if it’s true or not. I have met a whole host of amazing women through the breast cancer community in the past year and draw strength from their stories of survival, strength, and hope. I TRY my best to live my life and not let the little “what ifs” that live in the corner of my mind come out too often.

I find the silver linings when I can whether it be paying it forward to other breast cancer warriors or making a connection with another woman in a totally different part of the country all because we both have a similar diagnosis and treatment path. I appreciate the little things, the pink sunset, my husband wearing his “Hope is Stronger than Fear” bracelet 24×7 to support me, my oldest son wearing his pink ribbon socks with his baseball uniform, my younger son wearing a pink ribbon arm sleeve during baseball, or a beautiful pink hydrangea blooming in our yard for the first time. I focus on my gratitude and being kind to myself and remembering that cancer is not a one and done disease, that it is a never-ending story. 

The day that changed my life was transformative. From it was born the NEXT me because I am not NEW, I am different both physically & emotionally, and I am forever changed. 

On 8/31/21, we not only celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary, but we also celebrated my 1-year “cancerversary” of being NED. It was a big deal. Some people may wonder why do cancer survivors celebrate these dates. They are milestones on the path of our lives and dates that will always have meaning whether they be good or bad. My husband and I celebrated the day by taking off work, having lunch together and just spending time alone, but we also did what I promised myself I would do if I made it through my first year as a cancer survivor – and that was by getting a new and incredibly special tattoo. Through my plastic surgeon, we got the name of a medical tattoo artist who does not only traditional tattoo work but also mastectomy tattoos. I did not do a mastectomy tattoo just yet because I am still not finished with my reconstruction, but Kerry did my “Warrior” tattoo and I was able get to know her so that we can also plan for future work. 

Breast cancer tattoos showing a pink cancer ribbon and the word WarriorI am proud of myself for making it through my first year of breast cancer. Do I know what lies ahead for me? No…..do any of us? I am just grateful for each day that I am here and that I can wake up and enjoy another day.

Libby Riley -52, diagnosed Stage 1a ER+/PR-, HER2- IDC, bilateral mastectomy w/ reconstruction

Ballwin, MO

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