Keeping It Normal: Living with Cancer from a Position of Strength

Catherine Heigel

by Elysian Magazine

How do you keep living while you battle a disease that focuses your thoughts and energy on the possibility of dying? 

That question was front of mind for me in October 2021 when I learned I had high-grade lymphovascular triple-negative breast cancer – a more aggressive form of the disease. 

It seemed like life as I knew it just stopped. How was I to move forward? What was next?

My life quickly became an endless series of doctor appointments, scans, and procedures. I had more questions than answers as I attempted to understand my diagnosis and treatment options. It was in the whirlwind of these first few days after my diagnosis that I made two key decisions about what would be next for me. 

First, in consultation with my local hematologist/oncologist and my loved ones, I elected to undertake my cancer treatment at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. And second, I decided that notwithstanding a major move to Ohio that took me away from my teenage son, I was going to keep life as normal as possible for myself. 

I found that when I did things I would normally do, like respond to work emails, fold laundry and address Christmas cards, life felt normal. This feeling of normality gave me strength. 

Another component of feeling strong for me was having others interact with me as they normally would. I saw very early that when you tell someone you have cancer, they struggle to know what to say and they treat you as fragile (out of genuine care and concern). 

I didn’t want awkward conversations or people feeling sorry for me. I wanted to feel normal and strong. So, outside of my family, close friends, and immediate work colleagues and board of directors, I did not share my diagnosis publicly and asked that those who knew about it to keep it private. I greatly admire and respect women who share their breast cancer journey publicly as they go through treatment; however, for me, it was best to keep my story private until I was through the worst of the fight. 

Most people who know me know that I often describe my career as a series of jobs that paid me to solve problems. As I have advanced in my career, the problems just became more complex and of higher consequence. 

I determined that to beat cancer, I needed to treat cancer as another complex, high-consequence problem. 

Step one in this endeavor was to create a “new normal” that allowed me to live my life from a position of strength. My new normal meant continuing to work full-time, which was enabled by my company’s COVID remote-work policy. 

To be clear, I did not continue to work because I thought my company needed me; rather, I worked because it gave me purpose and mental strength. Working connected me daily to people who inspired and challenged me, and more importantly, it kept me busy. I am a naturally inquisitive person, and too much time to surf the internet to overanalyze different symptoms also was not good for my mental health. 

My cancer treatments began the week before Thanksgiving in 2021 with a plan for 24 weeks of chemotherapy and 48 weeks of immunotherapy given every three weeks. Following chemotherapy, I was scheduled to have surgery and then undergo five weeks of daily radiation treatments. 

However, after two separate hospitalizations for complications from the chemotherapy and immunotherapy, the doctors stopped my infusions early at the 15-week mark. We moved forward with surgery and radiation. 

Throughout all the ups and downs of my treatment, I continued to work full-time, and I was able to celebrate major milestones in my children’s lives. I attended both of my daughters’ college graduations, and I routinely participated in calls from my private chemo treatment room and even from my hospital bed. Staying engaged in work and my family’s lives kept those aspects of my life normal, and I cannot overstate the mental health benefits that had for me. 

My cancer journey has been a long haul with several setbacks along the way, but I am happy to report that I successfully completed treatments in late June and am now cancer-free. 

In even better news, in late August I was cleared to move back home to South Carolina. 

I am profoundly grateful for the tremendous care I received at the Cleveland Clinic and for the unwavering love and support of my family, friends, and colleagues. They all played a huge part in helping to “keep it normal” for me over the past year.

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