(Breast) Cancer: An Insider's Account: image of a woman hiking with expedition poles.

(Breast) Cancer: An Insider’s Account

Guest Post by Shari Kellems

This is honest. And probably a bit dark.

It’s been three years yesterday since I had surgery for cancer round 2, so it’s been on my mind.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I. Hate. It.

The world pukes up pink, I suppose to show support and solidarity to those of us who have gone through it. They call us, “survivors.” Really? Seriously? Survivors, huh?

Let me re-phrase that, in light of several friends who have had cancer, yet were not granted the gift to continue living, the gift of “surviving.” What shall we call them? Fatalities? Losers? We refer to those people as those who “lost the fight.” Really? They lost the fight?

Let me tell you something about cancer.

Cancer picks you randomly. It doesn’t matter if you cannot check off one single box on the list of things you might’ve done to get it.

Smoked? Nope. Drink alcohol? Nope. Breastfed? Yes. Family history? No. Exercise daily? Yep. The list goes on and on.

Yet somehow cancer still rears its ugly head on anyone it pleases. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

  • Moms and dads who have kids to raise
  • Kids who just want to kick a soccer ball and dress up for trick or treating on Halloween
  • Athletes
  • Professionals
  • People who live under the bridge

And let me tell you that everyone who’s had cancer, who is lying in bed with the sole goal on a daily basis being to open their eyelids that day, or who have a bipap machine blowing air into them because all they want to do is to continue breathing just one more day so they can continue to be with their families,

Not one of these people is trying to decide if they’re going to “fight” or “survive” that day. They just are.

When cancer goes ape-shit (pardon my language) and treatments don’t work anymore, or medical interventions only put off the inevitable, you will still hear cancer patients saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, right, honey?”

Because they want to stick around.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how optimistic you are, how many surgeries you’ve had, or “clear margins,” or how much of the joy juice that we call chemo has run through your veins, how much radiation has annihilated any rogue cancer cells that managed to escape everything else, as well as your chest wall or anything else it comes in contact with,

If cancer wants you, you have no choice in the matter. None.

No matter how much you eat right, exercise, pray, beg, barter and plead, endure everything they tell you to endure. There is no fighting it. There is no surviving it. There is only acceptance of what it’s done and what’s next.

Cancer affects you in ways you cannot fathom, and there is no one out there guiding you through the fallout because everyone’s experience is personal, so no one can.

You can ride your bike every day to try to feel human and be who you were before the diagnosis. You can run the trails and suddenly understand why Lance Armstrong loved blood doping as you’re huffing and puffing on a run that used to be easy-peasy.

(Breast) Cancer: An Insider's Account: image of a woman biking in the desert.

You can go to work and try to keep your life as routine and normal as possible, while everyone around you tells you how amazing you are for “fighting it,” for being determined to show up and try to live life as fully as you can because:

In reality, you are just scared as hell about when it’s going to blindside you and take you out—without your permission.

And you might even go so far as to be completely out of your mind and make crazy and ridiculous decisions that you NEVER would’ve made before, all in the name of “feeling alive,” because you see, realize, and understand the randomness of this disease.

So you do everything to seem and be normal. Is this denial? Maybe. Is this “fighting it?” Hmmmmm, not sure. But surviving??? There’s no choice there. That is simply a toss of the dice.

So please don’t use that word, “survivor,” around me. It makes me cringe.

I did not come through my cancer experience unscathed. Obviously.

While I am lucky enough to still have my heart beating, while I get to watch my kids grow up and see the amazing souls they are becoming, while I get more years with my husband Ian to travel and do the things that made us fall for each other all those years ago, while I feel so, so lucky every day when I’m riding in the woods and breathing in the beauty there that makes me feel physically strong and invincible, I feel like cancer took me out and turned me into someone I don’t quite recognize.

(Breast) Cancer: An Insider's Account: image of a woman with her family.

Cancer broke me in ways I’m not sure how to fix.

That doesn’t seem like “survivor” material. Or maybe I survived, but not really triumphantly.

But I am here.

Here’s to November. Let’s put away the pink.


I first met Shari Kellems about 10 years ago at the school bus stop at the end of my street. Shari is a wife, mother of 4, registered nurse, and superfan of fitness and the great outdoors. She lives with her family in Corvallis, Oregon.

Breast Cancer from an insider

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