Survivor Stories -- Elena Wiesenthal
I have been diagnosed with cancer three times over the last 11 years. The first diagnosis hit me like a freight train when I was 30 years old. It was a complete surprise because I had no immediate family history. I underwent twenty weeks of chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy with breast reconstruction. For years I took daily hormone therapy. I went on to earn a Masters in Public Health and marry my sweetheart, believing I had put cancer behind me for good.
The second diagnosis occurred four years later when I was pregnant. (It was my first—and turned out to be my only—pregnancy). The cancer returned in my lymph nodes. It was so scary because there was no way to know how far it had spread until after I had my baby. I underwent surgery while I was still pregnant. Since there was a chance that surgery could induce labor, I was assigned a second nurse to monitor my baby. She told me that as I was recovering from anesthesia, she watched mine and my baby’s heart rhythms return to normal in sync.
Four weeks later, I gave birth naturally to healthy baby girl. Two weeks after that, I learned that the cancer had been confined to my lymph nodes and was still considered curable. I began another course of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation. I had no idea if I was tired from treatment or exhausted from being the new mom of an infant, but I recovered and went back on daily hormone treatment.
The third diagnosis happened in 2014. I wanted to get pregnant again—I always wanted two kids—but I was worried about the cancer coming back again. My oncologist agreed to a PET scan just in case. The scan showed that the cancer was back, but this time it had spread to my lungs. That means the cancer is considered Stage IV or metastatic. There is no cure for Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I had a two year old and a death sentence.
Four years later, I am still here living life to the fullest with cancer in my body that today is stable. I am lucky that my current treatment—shutting down my ovaries (which I eventually had removed) and a different hormone treatment—has stopped the cancer from growing and spreading...for now. Not everyone with metastatic cancer has such a long successful run with a single type of treatment. It sucks too—I can’t have more children, became post-menopausal at 38, and worry chronically about the cancer growing and spreading. But right now I have a good quality of life, and I am grateful for every moment I get to spend with my daughter and husband.
I would encourage people post-treatment and people living with cancer to tell their stories of diagnosis, treatment, changing family and friend dynamics, confusing emotions and thoughts, hospital and doctor visits, etc. Tell all of it, even the gnarly bits you don’t think anyone wants to hear. Tell your story whether you write it down in a journal, or go to a support group, or chat with a good friend. Writing and telling my story over and over again has helped me come to terms with the trauma and grief and loss and I hope has helped prepare me for what is likely ahead.
For those supporting someone with cancer, I encourage you to listen, really listen to their stories. Be supportive of where they are in that moment. We don’t have to feel strong and positive every moment to successfully make it through treatment or to the next day. Cancer brings out a range of emotions—sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we want to rage at the unfairness, often we feel vulnerable. Listen to our stories.
I don’t believe in silver linings but living with cancer has forced me to evaluate every aspect of my life. About a month after my third diagnosis, I found Barre3 and four years later I love it more than ever. You can find me in the studio two or three times a week — in my Handful of course! Exercising regularly has been the best thing to help me feel strong in my changing body, to stabilize my mood, and to relieve stress in my life.
I am so grateful to still be inhabiting this body but years of treatment have left a lot of scars. Now my breasts are lopsided since I had radiation on my left side years after my reconstruction surgery. When I wear my Handful, I like to use the pads because they even me out which makes me feel more confident.