A Letter to my Donors, Supporters, Family and Friends
The closing of my Go Fund Me Campaign:
I have waited to share this story with you amidst the current gravity of our public health crisis with COVID-19, and more recently, the devastating deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, which have sparked protests and unrest around racial injustice in our country. My prayers and support remain with the friends and family members of those who have died, and I pray that we find a way to show compassion to each other, to recognize injustice when we see it, and always lead with love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said best, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” If I have learned anything in my process of dealing with and healing from cancer, it is that the only way to truly heal is with love.
Despite the difficult year 2020 has proved to be, I feel indebted to those who have supported my treatment and recovery, and I owe you an update. With gratitude and blessing, I am happy to tell you I am officially one year cancer-free! The news came after a follow-up appointment with my surgical oncologist; blood tests that revealed no evidence of disease in my body; a colonoscopy in March (just before the COVID quarantine), which included a biopsy of the tissue at the surgical site that came back clean, and an MRI and CT scan in January that revealed that the suspicious spot doctors were watching in my liver has disappeared. I celebrated alone in my room, which was not the celebration I imagined, though the pandemic necessitated it. Nonetheless, my oncologist said to me, “I’m not worried about anything.” Then, said, “In one more year, your chance of recurrence goes way down, and in four more years we get to use (carefully) the ‘C’ word.”
The C word (get your mind out of the gutter) means CURED. I can’t think of that word without crying yet, but it is hope. It is a goal to reach toward. For now, I have made it this far. And so far, everything looks good.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT.
The last time I updated you, I left you with a cliff-hanger, saying only that the pathology report brought me to my knees in tears. I am sorry for doing that, even if it is an effective writing device. Truth is, the emotion from everything I’ve been through hit me pretty hard. Once the surgery took place and I no longer had a killer mass growing inside me, I shifted out of survival mode, making way for the emotion of the experience to surface. And a few months into my post-op recovery, I started falling into a depression. I have suffered from depression on and off since being a teenager, and even though the imminent threat of death no longer existed, the fear that I had not done enough remained. The exhaustion from the panic set in and every malady carried with it the worry of relapse. I shied away from publicly sharing my updates because I needed to deal with the emotion of everything. Emotional unwellness begets physical disease, and as such, shifting my focus from physical healing to spiritual and mental healing felt as equally crucial as the surgery performed to remove the tumor from my body.
As I dealt with and adjusted to bodily changes that resulted from the removal of a foot of my colon, the depression crept in slowly. At first, it revealed itself in spontaneous and inexplicable crying fits at times when I had no coherent reason to cry. Eventually around October, depression settled in fully and life felt like trying to function under the weight of a wet blanket.
Depression—the unwanted, uninvited foe—moves into your head and tells you lies. It convinces you that life isn’t worth living, no matter what you’ve survived. It makes trying to complete simple daily tasks, like brushing your teeth or showering, feel like trying to climb Mount Hood. Depression has a best friend, a sidekick called Anxiety. She makes the idea of interacting with society feel like a cauldron of water is boiling at the bottom of your stomach. She makes your heart thump hard against your ribs loud enough to echo in your ears, even when you haven’t been out for a jog. If you’ve lived with Depression and Anxiety long enough, you learn to suppress their effects well enough to function as if they aren’t around, but they prevent you from being your best self, no matter how practiced you’ve become at wearing the mask to keep them concealed.
Medical debt, among unemployment and an unsettled personal life, compounded the emotions I experienced after my surgery, and the thought of remaining vulnerable and real and open to all of you—the people who have believed in me, and emotionally and financially supported me as I fought cancer—was more than I could muster. My favorite author Maggie Nelson once said, “Whatever emotion I was feeling at the time, I figured it was because I needed to feel it.” In the past four years, I quit my career, uprooted my life in Georgia to move to Vermont in pursuit of an MFA, graduated from the program and moved back to Atlanta shortly before getting diagnosed with and undergoing rigorous treatment for stage three rectal cancer. As a result, I have remained unemployed since. To say the least, life beat me up for a while. And for a while, I let it win.
Buddha said, “Suffering is due to our disconnection with the inner soul,” and I believe this is the case for depression and disease. Learning where we fit in society, in our family, in our careers, and how to manifest our desires might be life’s biggest mystery. I am a different person now than I was before being diagnosed with a chronic illness—one that if not managed could return.
According to a study titled, “Environmental and Heritable Factors in the Causation of Cancer,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “inherited genetic factors make a minor contribution to the susceptibility of most types of neoplasms”—which means, “environment plays the principle role among the causes of common types of cancer.”
My doctors know my cancer was not genetic, therefore environmental factors caused it. The environment extends beyond place; it isn’t only the city or town where we live, the dirt on which we tread, and the air we breathe. It is uniquely internal as well, comprised of thoughts and beliefs, habits we keep, and the food we eat. My environment hosted disease, which meant I wasn’t healthy, even if outward appearances looked otherwise. Redefining what healthy means to me has been the focus of 2020.
Alongside the quarantine for COVID-19, I sought space for emotional healing through meditation, prayer and scripture—and now picking up where I last left you no longer feels as scary. Forgive me if I have not kept you as informed as I promised, but please know that even in the times I failed to respond, your support, inquiries, letters, notes and (above all) your prayers for my well-being prove that what depression tells me—that life is not worth living—is nothing more than a terrible lie.
As I last told you, the pathology report revealed something that brought me to my knees in tears. I cried enough in the last 18 months to fill an ocean, but these particular tears were of joy, of gratitude, shock and sheer disbelief. As I mentioned in a previous update, during my decision-making process for treatment, I often felt a voice coming from within me that negated the warnings heeded by traditional doctors about the consequences of not taking chemotherapy; a voice that boomed, “You Are Wrong,” every time someone said forgoing chemo would result in my death. I believe the voice was of God—but call it love; call it the universe; call it whatever you want—it lives inside all of us. I couldn’t not hear it, though no one else could. I know I sound crazy but heeding the message from that voice very well may have saved my life.
The dissection of my tumor revealed several genetic mutations, as well as microsatellite instability, which according to the pathology report, “does not typically respond favorably to chemotherapy.” Furthermore, 5-fluorouracil, the drug prescribed to me and a common drug used in the treatment of colorectal cancers, is CONTRAINDICATED for my tumor type.
Meaning, the therapy should be withheld due to the harm it would cause the patient. I could have suffered irreparable side effects, a permanently compromised immune system, or even death for taking the drug meant to provide a cure.
How would you feel if it were you in this position? Faced with a life or death choice, experts warning you of your death, friends and family too afraid to trust your decision? It feels like the world is against you. You tell them, “It’s just a feeling. There’s a voice inside of me …” and all of the sudden you’re certifiably crazy. You’d cry enough tears to fill an ocean, too.
Doctors undoubtedly had my best interest at heart, my friends and family felt the same. Every single one of them wanted me to survive. We don’t always love others the way they need to be loved; or better yet, we don’t always receive love as it is intended. But when we pause to consider a perspective other than our own, when we take a moment to ponder where that person is coming from, we can see the intention is good.
The lesson from my diagnosis is this: no one knows what is best for you better than you. Traditional doctors in the West are educated to treat the masses, not the individual. But cancer is as unique as your genetic code, and if I didn’t take my health into my own hands, I might not be here anymore. Instead, I am fifteen months cancer-free.
My priorities are different now than a year ago. More than ever, I want to do work that helps others and also allows me to stay balanced and healthy in my own life. In the coming weeks, I will relaunch my social media presence to share the strategies I employed that helped reduce the size of my tumor (which allowed me to go directly to surgery without radiation or chemo), as well as the alternative methods I sought for treatment and nutritional advice and recipes I’ve learned along the way. I hope to encourage others to take charge of their own health—their heart, their body, their soul—because no one else will do it for you. I am not a doctor, and I can’t give medical advice, but I do know this: cancer is not a death sentence.
Thank you to each of you for helping me reach this milestone; I look forward to sharing many more. To continue hearing my story, you can follow me on social media on Facebook and Instagram @thebreanneross, as well as here on my blog, breanneross.com.