“Cancer has always had a presence in our family. It seemed every few years someone was getting diagnosed. Fortunately, two of my diagnosed aunts had genetic testing that came back negative, so we figured it was just a fluke. Still, I had a notion, at some point, I’d probably get cancer, given the family history and because nearly half the population will develop cancer at some point in their life.
But that wasn’t the thought that crossed my mind at 32 years old when I found a lump doing a self-check. When I figured I’d get cancer ‘at some point,’ I did mean more like after age 50. It was that time of the month and I’m an avid coffee drinker, so I figured it was a cyst related to that hormone-caffeine combination.
At the time, I worked as a biologist aboard commercial fishing boats in Alaska. That summer I was working on a research charter that recorded data on black cod in order to help set the quotas and monitor the fishery. I was somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska when I felt the lump. I was partnered with another biologist, and we were with a team of scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service. To say I needed to abandon the charter to see a doctor would have been acceptable. No one would have blamed me, but then there would have been a scurry to find a replacement.
And frankly, I wasn’t concerned. It was a cyst. Even Google reassured me of that, because my lump hurt when I pushed on it. I had about 6 weeks left of the research cruise and happened to have a doctor appointment with my PCP already scheduled 2 weeks after I got home. The lump could wait. So confident was I in this decision, I didn’t mention the lump to anyone on board. No reason to make everyone worry.
I debated even telling my doctor, but the lump hadn’t disappeared and I only see her once a year, so I figured I should mention it. I, fortunately, advocated for myself by mentioning its existence. My doctor, fortunately, decided to play it safe and send me for screening. Due to my age, I was instructed to have both a mammogram and an ultrasound. Due to the density of my breasts, the mammogram saw nothing. The ultrasound, however…
‘So you have cancer. We’re going to need to get you in for a biopsy.’
Wait, what? Doc, you used the wrong C-word – did you mean a cyst??
This news came only a week after my aunt passed. Pancreatic cancer. It had been a hard 3 years of treatment for her. My mom, my aunt’s primary caregiver, was finally able to rest after the doctor appointments, hospice, the funeral… but only for 3 days.
Obviously, it’s a bit difficult to be going through cancer treatment in the middle of the Bering Sea, so I’d have to stay home for the foreseeable future. While many women are able to work through treatment, my oncologist advised against it. There was no point starting a new job only to have to take days off for surgery or because I felt too sick from chemo to go to work.
I scoffed a bit. I get horrid motion sickness and have puked on nearly every boat I worked on. I’ve worked more than 36 hours straight on some of those boats. So the doctor’s threats of fatigue and nausea from the chemo, though unpleasant, sounded completely doable. I could work through treatment, surely!
There’s natural nausea and fatigue. And then there’s drug-induced nausea and fatigue. Those 4 months of dose-dense chemo were rough…
Perhaps it was because I had made some sort of weird peace with the idea I’d have cancer eventually the diagnosis itself didn’t wreck me. That’s not to say I welcomed it with open arms. I grieved my diagnosis. I grieved the loss of my breasts. I cried when I shaved my head. I worried as I read the statistics of triple-negative breast cancer, its rate of recurrence, and 5-year survival rate.
But what I truly grieved was the loss of my job, the abrupt redirection from my travel plans, not knowing if I’d ever get that opportunity again. My job on the boats was a ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle. Work your butt off every day for 3 to 6 months at a time, then go travel somewhere. I had visited six countries since starting the job, learned to scuba dive, and visited several states in the US.
That summer when I found the lump, I had a 5-year plan of work and travel I was absolutely ecstatic about! 6 weeks in Thailand after I got home, 2 months backpacking through Africa the next year, Antarctica the year after that. But with one word from the doctor, that plan was gone. My job certification would expire, and I felt absolutely no direction as to what to do with my life. I truly worried the best years of my life had already passed. I had already had my share of adventure in life.
I had bought extra pages in my passport in anticipation of my upcoming adventures. But after my diagnosis, those pages and my visa to Thailand sat unused in a drawer.
Instead, between COVID and doctor appointments, I’ve had to find a new way to explore. Instead of gallivanting off to different countries and cultures, I’ve learned to find adventure closer to home. Partly in an effort to provide advice for those who are diagnosed after me, and partly to prove to myself the joy of life isn’t over after cancer, I started a blog – Adventure After Cancer. In it, I share my experiences with cancer treatment, as well as document day trips and other travels. My hope is to encourage survivors that life is still a beautiful adventure worth living and cherishing, even after the wreckage of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Nearly 2 and a half years since my diagnosis, I finally feel like I’m on the rebound. The side effects of chemo have almost entirely disappeared, my radiated chest is healing beautifully, and I’m done with reconstruction surgeries for the foreseeable future.
Equally exciting is the fact I have a new job. Beginning in March, I’ll begin training to work as a biologist aboard commercial fishing boats out of Hawaii. It’s similar to my work in Alaska, though understandably different in a number of ways. For one thing, it provides such character-building opportunities as pooping in a bucket and showering with a hose on deck for weeks at a time. Of course, one of the perks of the job is the chance to explore Oahu when I’m on land. And again, with its ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle, I can continue to travel now and then. The best part is that, for this single, childless gal who loves travel, this job and lifestyle are literally living the dream.
While cancer isn’t some sort of enlightenment program making us cum laude graduates in kindness and appreciation, it does make many of us realize time is precious and tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We’ve looked our mortality in the eye and understood if there’s something we want to do or experience in this lifetime, by golly we better get to it!
For that reason, I am beyond ecstatic about this new job and adventure in Hawaii! I’m thrilled to get back to a job and lifestyle I love, back to the adventure in life that fires me up and fills me with gratitude.
To those who have faced a cancer diagnosis, I hope to inspire you there is still adventure to be had after cancer. And to those fortunate enough to have never had cancer, I hope to inspire you to live in the moment, and to not take your time and health for granted.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Beth DeLong from Ohio. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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