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Paula J. McGarvey

Paula J. McGarvey relies on the words of a fellow cancer survivor: "Attitude is everything, pick a good one."

Editor's note: Butte's Relay for Life event is Sunday, September 29. Leading up to the event, The Montana Standard will profile someone fighting cancer each day this week. Today's story is a first-person account by Paula J. McGarvey.

“Sometimes you get to choose your battles, and sometimes they choose you.”

This quote by Gabe Grunewald appeared on my Facebook feed early one winter morning while I was in treatment for my third battle with breast cancer. There are some vehemently opposed to using a battle analogy for those facing life-threatening illnesses, thinking that a lost battle equates to perceived failure. It has been my experience, however, that seeing cancer as an invading enemy that needs to be resisted is a metaphor that has served me well.

I believe that nothing prepares a person for the experience of sitting in an exam room and hearing the doctor say the words, “You have cancer” — not even a previous cancer diagnosis. The fear hits me every time like the blast of an artillery shell. It continues to bombard me in waves as I come to accept the fact that I have been involuntarily indoctrinated as one of the estimated 1,762,450 people diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year (www.cancer.org).

I have fought the fight on many clinical battlefields including chemotherapy infusion rooms, operating tables, and radiation treatment vaults. I have fought related anxiety, depression, physical pain, and side effects of treatment — some of which include permanent disfigurement and disability. And I have fought at great expense financially.

I have continued to move forward with the designation of a “cancer patient” and on to “cancer survivor.” The latter is a title that I have come to simultaneously both love and loathe, depending on what day it is. But when all is said and done, it is a title that I will continue to embrace gladly, for the chance to live and love another day. 

At present, I am in my fourth battle with cancer. In the past 12 years I have endured 36 rounds of chemotherapy, 37 radiation treatments, a half-a-dozen cancer-related surgeries, and a little over 2 years spent on oral cancer therapy.

My proneness to breast cancer is due to a genetic mutation known as BRCA-1. The mutation was passed down through my father, whose own mother lost her life to breast and ovarian cancer in her 50s. For me, it was not a matter of if I got cancer, but when. My saving grace is that cancer research and treatment has vastly improved since my grandmother lost her battle. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, I am currently living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in a drug-sustained remission courtesy of an oral cancer medication called a PARP-inhibitor. It’s not a cure, but is successfully delaying disease progression.

Because of this, I consider myself somewhat of an anomaly, having been blessed to have survived thus far against the odds. With each scientific and medical victory, the survivorship of cancer patients has been steadily increasing.

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As with treatment protocols, my perspective has changed drastically since my first bout of cancer, as has my survival strategy. With 1 in 3 of those reading this article statistically facing a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lifetime (www.cancer.org ), I feel somewhat compelled to share some lessons that I’ve learned.

First off, I firmly believe the only right way to go through a cancer diagnosis is in the exact manner and process that works best for each patient as an individual. No matter how much or how little help, advice, or support we want or get, in the end this is a deeply personal journey. Figure out what works best for you and disregard the rest.

Whether to share or not share your diagnosis is also a deeply personal decision. I chose to share my experience in the hopes of helping others in the same situation. I personally felt better about my lot in life knowing that my experience might make somebody else’s life better. That was my choice. As I said, do what’s best for you.

For me, knowledge was power. I felt so incredibly out-of-control with each new cancer diagnosis. The more I knew, the less anxiety I felt about that loss of autonomy. I read books, searched the Internet, and sought out second opinions. That knowledge and experience, for some, only heightens the fear. Tailor your information strategy to best suit your needs.

When first diagnosed in 2007, I was often shocked and disappointed by the things that people said and did; or in some cases didn’t say or do, regarding my cancer diagnosis. I have since come to realize that whether someone avoided me and said nothing, or clumsily said the “wrong” thing, it has more to do with their own experiences than me. I have learned take a more forgiving stance and not take it personally.

I am a hard-headed, fiercely independent woman. That mindset has both helped me survive and lessened my quality of life by not asking for help when I needed it. Learning to reach out and ask for help was one of the most important lessons I have learned through my cancer journey. By accepting help, my burden grew lighter. Since doing this, I have been humbled by the cumulative total of charity, emotional and physical support, and love I have received in the past 12 years from my community, family, friends, and random strangers.

I also have learned that sometimes the people we reach out to are not able to provide us with the help that we need. Through initially this angered and hurt me, I’ve come to realize that I cannot expect others to meet, or even understand my needs. Somedays in the thick of treatment, I didn’t even know what it was that I needed, so how could I expect someone else to?

Last but not least, I have relied on the words of a fellow cancer survivor, who told me at the start, “Attitude is everything, pick a good one.” For me, being positive hasn’t meant denying the hard reality of living with cancer, but rather learning to focus on the good in all things. I would never give up the friendships I’ve made on my cancer journey. Nor, would I give up the appreciation that comes with facing each new day as a survivor. I’m not saying I don’t have bad days; I’m just trying not to live there.

In the end, if the cancer overtakes me and I lose my battle, I will not see it as personal failure or what ultimately defines me, but rather will focus on the cumulative triumph of each and every day I lived fully while fighting this disease.  

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