My name is Rabia Gibbs. A few weeks before my 36th birthday I was diagnosed with stage IIb/IIIa, triple-negative breast cancer. In order, my treatment plan entails neoadjuvant chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and then reconstructive surgery. I recently finished chemo (4 sessions of Adriamycin/Cytoxan and 4 sessions of Taxol). In less than a week, I will be undergoing surgery: a modified radical mastectomy on the right side and a mastectomy with axillary dissection on the left. Shortly thereafter, I will begin radiation for approximately 4-5 weeks. I also have the BRCA1 gene which means that I will need to have my ovaries removed before I turn 40.
Cancer has proven to be a life-changing experience, and not only in the most obvious ways. Yes, I am scared of this tumor that is still inside of my body. Although I have never been inclined to have biological children, I am also sad that the option is now limited, and, quite frankly, I am terrified of what is going to happen to my body after I enter surgical menopause. But I’ve also proved to be stronger than I thought.
If you let it, living with cancer can turn into a horrific game of “what if?” What if the chemo doesn’t catch everything? What if the cancer comes back? What if I have to go through all of this again? What if this was all for nothing? What if I don’t make it? Those first few weeks, I felt haunted and hunted. I researched as much as I could and I agonized over every decision – no matter how big or small – because I was sure it would determine the outcome of everything. I stayed informed and made sure my questions and concerns were heard and addressed. And while I was growing empowered about my medical treatment, my personal life was undergoing a transformation.
As a single, professional woman, I had always enjoyed my independence and solitude but it began to feel empty. Not unfulfilled, but unpopulated. However, the transition from being entirely self-sufficient to relying on others for emotional support proved to be difficult. It was a long, hard journey fraught with crying and self-doubt, but it was worth it. During the process, I learned how much I care about my friends and family and how much they care about me. I also learned to enjoy the now and to be more self-aware about experiencing the moment. I love my job but it has become easier to say no to working on the weekends and to say yes to taking the time to be present with someone I love.
During this time I also took yoga lessons with an emphasis on meditation. The goal was to make myself more comfortable with the disease and to be spiritually and emotionally prepared – just in case. Some of the exercises included writing a letter to cancer (which included a lot of curse words), setting personal wellness goals, envisioning how I wanted to shape my life, and thinking about the future. This was important because the future was something that I had started to lose faith in, the idea that I would have a future; my everyday was consumed with appointments, chemo side effects, and horrible statistics about triple-negative breast cancer. The yoga lessons deepened my own religious faith and provided me with coping mechanisms to lift the weight off when the stress of dealing with cancer got to be too much. Instead of avoiding it, I was able to confront the fear, let the emotions happen, and then set them aside and keep going forward. Because that’s what I want to do, what I am determined to do: keep going forward.
Like anyone dealing with the disease, I am not zen 100% of the time and have had my fair share of shower sob sessions and emotional freakouts. Once, I woke up in the middle of the night to find that while asleep I had been checking the lymph node in my armpit to see if it had gotten any larger. And a part of me is always scared, all the time, even while writing this. But I have to say that I am grateful to cancer for one thing: it has made me realize how much I love being alive and how much I want to stay that way. In the meantime, I am going to keep moving and go as far as I can for as long as I can. I am going to let myself fall deeper in love with my family and friends. I am going to take that trip, read that book, and stop and stare at the sky in the middle of a park when I should be running errands because I can and it makes me happy. The whole point of all of this – the chemo, the doctor appointments, the surgery – is to keep me alive and to be alive is to live. My friend, another cancer survivor, says you don’t really beat cancer until you die of something else. So I’m determined to beat cancer and have the time of my life while doing it.