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Battling Cancer with Lessons Learned in Recovery

Caron alum Kathy shares her story

Life is full of surprises. Living years of my life in addiction and the past five years in recovery has taught me to always expect the unexpected. You don’t know what’s waiting for you just beyond the horizon, so you have to learn to accept what comes. Living in the moment is more important to me now than ever before.

On August 12th this year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My doctor/surgeon had not expected this, so it came as a surprise to all of us. Initially, I was just in shock. I didn’t know how to feel. But as I began to process the reality of my diagnosis, it started to dawn on me that it was not that different from what I faced while I was struggling with my active addiction. I was again thrown into battle with a disease I could not control.

I had indulged my alcoholism ever since I turned 21 (legal). When I was 38, I ‘supported my husband’s new sobriety’ by stopping my own drinking. I managed to stay sober for four years through a twelve step program, until my relapse. My heavy drinking had caused rifts in many of my relationships, affecting my relationship with my children the most; I had become a ghost of a mother to them. It wasn’t until 2010, when I was 60, that it became clear that I needed help for myself and entered Caron Treatment Centers. Only then did I finally make a real commitment to my own sobriety. I was admitted into their relapse unit for a month and ended up staying in extended care for three more months. I am now retired from my drinking career and in recovery at age 65; this coming December marks five years of sobriety. I’ve mended my relationships with those I had hurt during my active addiction, my daughter and I are closer than we’ve ever been, and my life, though now faced with a new battle against cancer, has never been better.

Being in recovery has equipped me with the strength and resilience to cope with my cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment. Recovery teaches us that we have to take things one day at a time because there is no way to know what may be (or not be) in the future. Why imagine what’s ahead when there is so much to experience in the present? Right now, I’m trying to live my life in bite-sized pieces, to live in the moment. Of course, I’m not perfect but I do my very best.

What I learned in recovery that has also helped me with my diagnosis is the concept of acceptance. I have been a very controlling person; I’ve wanted to run the show. But in order to achieve a successful recovery, I had to realize that I wasn’t in control, rather the disease of addiction was. I had to surrender and let go of the delusion that I had to have full command of everything. This has greatly shaped how I’m approaching cancer because I recognize that this disease is something that is beyond my power.

However, what I’ve realized in recovery and now in my fight against breast cancer, is that while there are many aspects of life that I can’t control, there are many that I can. For example, I know I can control my attitude about the situation. I started my first chemotherapy treatment at the end of September and started feeling the drop-off effects a few days afterwards. At that point, I felt extremely negative and upset. Subsequently, I started feeling very judgmental about myself for being upset. It was a vicious cycle of self-judgment and distress. I then realized I had to accept that this life change was very overwhelming for me and finally come to terms with the simple fact feelings are feelings, not facts and we should not smother them. There was no reason to beat myself up for feeling that way. And so this circles back to attitude. I can sit here and constantly wallow in a never ending circle of negativity or I can look at my situation, understand how it’s making me feel, acknowledge the feelings, and then move on. I think this approach could be applicable for anyone going through a difficult experience or a lot of uncertainty, including recovery.

I know the effects of treatment will pull me down to these emotional and physical low points, but it’s essential that I maintain a positive attitude as best as I can. I try to keep the humor alive as much as possible. I refuse to let cancer take away my ability to see the funny side of life; I won’t let it deprive me of my ability to laugh and feel good. This also includes the ability to recognize the inevitable fatigue and take care of myself.

Ultimately, it would be much harder to maintain a positive outlook if it weren’t for the support of my family. I have such a loving and wonderful family and I am so grateful for them. Back when I needed help for my addiction, I was hesitant about asking for help for anything because I had established an “I can handle this myself” mindset that only hurt me in the end. In recovery from both alcoholism and cancer, I have learned that asking for help is crucial.

Upon learning about my cancer diagnosis, I accepted my family’s support readily. My relatives from out of state offered to drive in to stay with me and I will accept their offer without a second thought. My son and my daughter, as well as my two step-daughters, have been helping out whenever they can. My daughter, who is now 25, has been living with me during the week to help out despite her having to commute hours to work in Englewood, NJ every morning. And my husband has really risen to the occasion – he is my eyes, my ears, and my guide when I need him the most. I am so grateful that I have this support system because they give me the strength and the power that comes with knowing I am not alone in this battle.

I know there is a long road ahead but all I can do is take each day at a time, each moment at a time. Being in recovery from addiction has equipped me with the right mindset I need to approach breast cancer. I’m ready to face it head on. My life in sobriety has turned out to be a life beyond my wildest dreams and I plan to keep it that way, no matter what tomorrow brings.