On April 24, 2018, while on sabbatical from Andover and living in Maine, I was diagnosed with stage three invasive breast cancer. I was 34 at the time and had no family history with cancer. I am still undergoing treatment today, so you may see me around campus wearing a baseball hat or beanie because I did, as many cancer patients do, lose my hair. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to offer my story as a way for the community to connect with the cause that often feels large, sometimes disconnected, and all about pink.
Everyone’s experience with cancer is so personal. My way of dealing with it is by no means the way; it is just mine and mine alone, but I am happy to share because I think it can help others.
I had two months of intense and aggressive chemotherapy through May and June. Then, I had a major surgery in July. I started up a different, more aggressive chemotherapy for August and September and had my final chemotherapy infusion on September 27. Woohoo! I will then have a second surgery in October and will undergo daily radiation for six to seven weeks from the end of November through the beginning of January 2019.
One of the things that I have been mindful of this whole time is the power of positivity. Granted, during the last few years I have taken a deep dive into sport and positive psychology, used part of my sabbatical to finish a book titled “Unstoppable” (a mental training guide), and spent three months in Australia and New Zealand traveling with my family, where I visited schools that embed positive psychology into their educational philosophy. I have also practiced and studied mindfulness for the last few years, including taking a graduate course at Boston University.
So, when I got the call telling me that the biopsies were positive for cancer, I honestly felt prepared. Definitely scared. But also prepared. My first words to the doctor who called me were, “Well, that is really inconvenient.” It was not how I planned to spend the remaining months of my sabbatical, that is for sure! But, I couldn’t be more grateful for the background, experience, and the superstar support system I have. Before the biopsies were done, I told my husband, (Mr. Silversides, Associate Director of College Counseling), “I/we have a mindset to be able to handle this, so maybe if I have cancer it will spare someone else who wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
That’s really how we felt. We took the approach of “I GET TO go have chemotherapy,” not “I HAVE to.” It is a simple word choice, but there is a big difference in mindset and how we approach it. Because the reality is that there are people in far worse positions than I am, so I AM grateful to get to have the treatment I do and to be living near some of the best hospitals in Boston for it.
As a former college basketball player, I have approached my treatment like a really tough, competitive game. I have four quarters. The first quarter was chemo round one, the second quarter was the major surgery, the third quarter is chemo round two, then we’ll have a TV timeout to get my counts back up after chemo in preparation for the next surgery, which is less invasive. Then, I’ll finish up the fourth quarter with radiation. I know that even when I finish the fourth quarter, my journey will not be complete. I will be on daily medication and monthly injections for likely ten-plus years (largely because of the invasive nature of my cancer and my young age). Being a cancer survivor will be a lifetime thing. The experience won’t just go away. These four quarters, however — the most intense part where I really need my game face on — will hopefully become a distant memory.
This is not to say there aren’t challenges. One misconception about positive psychology or happiness research is actually that it means one must always be happy and never experience negative emotions. This is not the case. I have had more than enough tough days to count. I was really sick for just about the entirety of the first round of chemo. And, I have days now with some pretty intense bone pain, almost like shin splints, but on all of my bones including my spine. I had about six weeks — yes, WEEKS — of insomnia post-op. All of this, however, has reinforced the power of social connections, friends, and family. I heard from many alumni, got a number of visits, and my friends organized a GoFundMe early on and then a Meal Train for our family. Every email I get and every interaction I have, with literally everyone, has lifted me up beyond ways I can count.
I also started a blog called “The Silver Side” for good things that happened during each day. Because the truth is that even the toughest of days have good things that happen in them. We just have to focus our attention onto them and life suddenly feels a whole lot better. Humor, laughter, smiling, perspective, gratitude, and a bit of ‘fake it till you make it’ have paved the way for our family. Our motto since diagnosis has been from “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”
The bottom line is this: I know I am not the only one affected by cancer. There are other survivors on our campus and people with family members possibly going through treatment right now. There are people in far, far worse situations than me, and there are surely some community members who have people in their lives who did not survive the battle.
But this October, as you see pink uniforms for teams or put on your pink breast cancer awareness socks, I wanted you to have a story and a face for the cause, as well as thinking about all those who have gone through it or might go through it in the future. I am here for you all.
Lani Silversides is an Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.