I was 29, living the glorious night shift life as a staff nurse in a cardiac observation unit in Orange County, California. It was a day off and I woke up at 2am from a "nap." Bored from social media, I had a great idea to feel my boobs.
Having tiny breasts, I immediately felt a quarter-sized, immovable lump on my left chest. Right on top of the heart. "I'll get it checked in the morning," I thought.
It's been seven years since I was diagnosed and treated for a sarcoma on my left breast. I had a mastectomy, radiation therapy, and the most brutal chemotherapy. That should be about it, right? In this day and age, everyone is well AWARE that breast cancer exists. Everyone has some connection to someone whose mom had it, a neighbor's auntie's friend, an old classmate's cousin twice removed. With all the pink splashed about every October by these foundations and organizations hoping to "spread awareness," everybody should be aware by now. But what, really, do you know?
I’d like to share with you what happens after a person survives.
We all have different stages of adaptation and growth, but here’s a little window to my experience:
I started hating the pink propaganda. Despite all the pink ribbons stamped on products, 5k runs, candle vigils, and galas these organizations have done to raise millions and millions of dollars, I was turned away when I needed help.
During cancer, I was going through a divorce, supporting my family, and sending my sister to college. I had to couch-surf when I left my ex-husband, living at the mercy of my friends. I reached out to the biggest organizations and foundations there were that claimed to support the breast cancer community. Unfortunately, due to the income that I had that year being a nurse, I did not qualify for financial support. What I qualified for were art classes, makeovers, and pink boxes full of shit I didn't need. What I needed was money to pay for the sarcoma consultation outside my network. What I needed was money to cover my Cobra after work stopped covering my health insurance. What I needed was money to pay for my Neupogen shots not covered by insurance because I opted for the "cheapest" since I was a healthy, happy, 29-year-old girl. I was drowning in debt, bills, and letters informing me that my accounts had been sent to collections.
If you want to help, please HELP DIRECTLY. Give directly to the person. Money is great, but visiting and spending time, not treating them like a sick person, and helping around the home is priceless. One of my friends cooked for me and took me to the beach. The fresh, salty air in my lungs and watching the waves was such a treat. We made sandwiches to give away at Skid Row. I had a friend who did my laundry. I had someone come visit just to be with me. She found me immobilized on the couch, my bladder full, my mouth pooled with saliva, because I was terrified to move. If I moved, I would throw up and make a mess of the house that wasn't even mine. It was during this time when my friendships and relationships were tested and trimmed. Please do not give health advice when you’re not asked. Even if the juice cleanse cured the cancer of your neighbor’s cat.
When donating to big organizations and nonprofits, know that most of what you give sustains the organization. Someone needs to pay for the office, electric and phone bills, furniture, computers, logos, flyers, ads, and employee wages. The last drops go into actual people or research.
However, there are organizations out there that SERVE people directly. Do the research. One of them is a program of Newport Aquatic Center called We Are Ocean—they send survivors to ocean-based camps and activities. As a way to give back, I now volunteer as a camp nurse and advocate. I learned how to surf, swim, paddle, and have met the most amazing fellow survivors and volunteers. Being around fellow survivors makes me feel normal and understood. They are so inspiring and seeing them thrive alleviates my feelings of guilt for being alive.
I wanted to be debt-free. Because of that ugly, helpless feeling of having to depend on others, I wanted to get rid of debt. I paid off over $30,000 in two years by renting a room versus having my own apartment and lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, eggs, and Ensure. I called every bank to cut a deal. And in August of 2017, I did it. I finished all of it off.
The power and control I felt over my life was surreal. From then on, I accumulated net worth.
The fact that my net worth at the time was $10 felt amazing. I was free.
To this day, I pay off credit card balances every month and keep my balance at 1%. I check my credit score often. I invest. I invest in my retirement. I challenge my financial beliefs and put them to the test. I used to think that I’m going to die early, so why not have fun? As travel nurses, there is a constant siren call for as many trips, music festivals, and fine dining we should partake in. As a survivor, there is a voice in the back of my head that says, “you won’t take your money with you.” It’s true, but I’ll leave it to my family, who will prosper and enjoy the fruits of my
labor. It will be my parting gift.
And what if I live till I’m 90 and have no retirement plan??? I don’t want to be one of those nurses still working way after retirement because they need to.
My diet and religion do not define me. During cancer, I was told by so many people to eat and not eat certain foods. To be vegan or at least vegetarian. To eliminate sweets because cancer cells feed on sugar. To read books on healing your body through nutrition. To do yoga. To try this, no—that.
I was told by my own family that cancer is punishment from God because I stopped going to church (and also because I divorced my ex-husband). “Aren’t you tired of being punished by God?” My biological mom said, a core memory.
Listen. I’m all for it if you’re vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo-pescatarian, republican or libertarian—but please do not impose your diet nor beliefs on anyone who isn’t interested. If I’m dying, please grant me my dying wish to aspirate on Mastro’s buttercake and a glass of cab. And if I refuse to partake in the magical healing properties of the monstera root from the Ugandan rainforest—if I refuse to be cleansed of my sins by the sacred act of baptism—please, allow me. If I choose these treatments instead of chemotherapy, allow me. Support me. Be there for me.
I have cut off a number of friends and even family over our differences in opinion on how I should live my life, from cancer days to this day. I’m sure you have, too.
We have such a unique lifestyle as travelers. We are independent, we take risks, we take accountability for our choices, and we stick by our decisions, however shitty the assignment. We are so free. I have had people that care for me tell me what I should be doing at my age. It’s so important to set boundaries and remind ourselves that they come from a place of care, although they might not fully understand. This is why it’s so wonderful to have such a community like this. Although I still struggle with feelings of isolation and lack of belongingness, I love watching you
all and learning from your experiences.
Nothing lasts forever. Not our suffering. Not our youth, beauty, nor strength. Not our paychecks and lifestyles. This truth is even more prominent to me now as a travel nurse. The lack of permanence forces me to take in the moments, the views, the friendships, the hardships. But I wish that the lessons, memories, friendships, and relationships continue to grow as I go farther in my journey.
Written By: Diana Vega, Travel RN