Thirteen Years: Cherish the Moments
Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (mBC), more commonly known as stage IV breast cancer. Only 29% of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer live at least five years after the cancer is found. With my diagnosis, life as I knew it changed. I went from being medically retired from the United States Air Force to the realization I would be getting some type of treatment for the rest of my life.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was 43 years old and had to figure out how to transition from being at the height of my military career to retiring because of breast cancer. Receiving a diagnosis at a young age is not only scary, but also shocking. Young women like me aren’t supposed to get breast cancer. Scans, mammograms, biopsies, oncologists, and breast surgeons quickly became part of my daily life.
Through the years, I’ve undergone many different treatment plans which included chemotherapies with names I can’t pronounce and numerous scans I dreaded. Just the sounds of the scans are nerve-racking. If you looked at my medical records, you’d see I’ve had over 430 appointments at the same cancer center. What a ride it’s been.
Aside from the medical procedures, mBC has sent me on the longest emotional roller coaster of my life. I had to decide whether I was going to enjoy the ride or let it destroy me. I’ve decided to continue to use it as an opportunity to learn more about myself and learn more about how breast cancer impacts black women.
Being an advocate was not what I set out to do after I was diagnosed. My advocacy journey started when my breast surgeon sent me a flyer in the mail about a breast cancer symposium and included a note saying I would be a great fit for it. The symposium was where I learned about the different breast cancer organizations. The awareness drove me to better educate myself. From that education, came my advocacy – and what I learned through advocacy was that black women were largely unaware of the resources available to them.
It was then I knew - I had to be a voice that my community lacked and desperately needed. Learning more about breast cancer has helped me help others be their own advocates and better understand what to expect from their medical providers. It’s important to me that other breast cancer patients know what I know, so they can equip themselves with the right questions to ask their doctors.
Coming to terms initially with a Stage IV diagnosis was not easy for me, but finally I accepted my new reality and chose to live my life with dignity and grace as best I could. I didn’t accept my diagnosis for many months, and then I guess I had my “aha moment.”
I laugh at myself sometimes because I don’t even know what to call myself anymore: Unicorn, survivor, thriver, living with mBC, or just Sheila. Some days I am all those things. Although I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, I do know I want to be remembered as Sheila. Just Sheila. I don’t want to be remembered as a survivor, Veteran, wife, mother, friend, or daughter. I want people to say, dang - the party just isn’t right without Sheila! Or advocacy isn’t right without Sheila. I just want to be Sheila.
As of January 2023, I’ve been living with mBC for 4,745 days. For the past thirteen years, I’ve been following the same routine. I go to treatment every three weeks at the same hospital and lab, see the same oncologist and even some of the same nurses. I consider myself blessed because I have a great GOD, an incredible support system comprising of family and friends, and a wonderful therapist who keeps me focused on what’s important.
Thirteen years! Maybe, just maybe, there will be a cure one day and no more lives will be lost to breast cancer. So, never stop believing and never stop living your life for the moment – all the moments are special. Cherish them and cherish the memories. I know I will.
For additional support, please visit our resources page from our partners in Metastatic Breast Cancer.