Before Cancer and After Diagnosis (BC and AD)

  • 6 February 2014


The most widely used calendar in our world today, the Gregorian calendar, breaks down our timeline from before Christ or the Common Era (BC or BCE) to after Christ (in Latin, Anno Domini, or AD). I know for sure that the dividing line in my life has been advanced cancer, symbolized appropriately by the crab.

Last Sunday a beloved pastor delivered a message to our church putting that divide into divine perspective, but leaving me to ponder my circumstances. Battling colon cancer for four years with 70-plus cycles of chemo behind him, he was able to speak publicly for the first time after a long silence. A voice of experience. What resonated with me most about his message? It was hard for him to remember his life without stage IV cancer.

I can relate.

After almost a year and a half since my stage IV diagnosis, I can truly acknowledge the difficulty of recalling what life was like before a compassionate doctor delivered to me that earth-shattering news. In my former life I had been laid off from my previous job and was seeking employment, with no success. In retrospect, it was a blessing no one wanted to hire me. At the time, however, the rejections stung me worse each time, like a pesky mosquito never buzzing off. Looking back, I can see  I was blind.

But now I see.

Before the diagnosis I lived at the gym, skied almost every year, ran around the neighborhood, biked through parks along bubbling streams, and painted landscapes catching my fancy. I enjoyed a large variety of delicacies, with a hearty appetite for fine dining. I visited my primary care physician and oncologist once a year. No drugs. Travel was to beautiful places of my choosing. I opened jars and picked up items from the floor with the greatest of ease, without  a trapeze. I climbed up and down stairs as if twenty years younger. I even climbed a mountain or two. The only time I got nosebleeds was high up in the bleachers.

And then it hit.

When the rogue lymph node on my chest invaded my body, all hell broke loose. Pain racked most of my body. Medicines couldn’t touch it. When finally I got into a clinical trial and started to gain needed weight after surgeries and grueling hospital stays, I realized I had lost my previous life. Now I am a most picky eater due to a weak and sensitive stomach. Eating requires twice the amount of time to consume less than half the quantity of food. Daily nosebleeds plague me despite moisturizers everywhere. I get carsick without being in a car. I take narcotics and meds for side effects around the clock. I’m lucky if I get out to walk three times a week. Frozen shoulder has returned to haunt me after a long respite. Slumber is most welcome. I visit my oncologist every three weeks and receive nausea-inducing scans every four months. Travel to the hospital for these visits is not optional, and quite wearing. This is my new norm. As more time passes, those memories of a carefree life dissipate into oblivion.

And it’s okay.

Despite all the challenges, I forge ahead. I buy a smartphone adopting the motto of carpe diem. On the days when I feel really well, I write or play an instrument, play games and study the Bible with friends, or take a walk. On other days I veg in front of a flickering screen. A huge blessing is that I don’t mourn anymore for the old life. It was still filled with pain and suffering, just of a different kind. I didn’t appreciate the nuances of life as I do now. And I can relate better to those who struggle with chronic disease or aging, wondering why their bodies don’t respond the way they used to. I could never say, “I know what you mean” or “I know how you feel” to someone, because I can’t get into that person’s body or mind and understand his or her unique pain. But I can offer people a gentle hug and encouraging words, a listening ear, a warm smile and a hand over their hand.

The pastor who gave that message almost a week ago received a standing ovation. And that’s before he even spoke a single word. Witnessing that moving scene gave me extra courage to speak out about metastatic disease, to speak the truth, to avoid sugarcoating a crabby diagnosis. We go on.

Have you had a defining incident in your life that divided it into a before and after?

  • Heily

    Jan – you are such a blessing and inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  • http://none karen sutherland

    dear jan,

    this is a beautifully written post! your story before, during and after is one that so resonates with me – though I am not quite to the afters with grief as well as treatment for the second cancer. but just reading about how you have re-framed your new life re-invented gives me great hope and comfort that I, too, can forge ahead and feel the warmth of gratitude and be a help to others. I so appreciate your honesty and no sugar-coating of metastatic BC. if we don’t own up to the truth of our stories, we will never truly be able to move ahead to live life as fully as possible. thank you for your wonderful infusion of truth and hope.

    much love and light,

    Karen xoxo

  • jhasak

    Heily, you are an inspiration to me as well. Thanks so much for your comment. xo

  • jhasak

    Karen, so good to hear from you again. I do hope you can find through your grief the hope and comfort I’ve experienced with passing time. There are still moments of terror, such as when my nose bleeds unexpectedly in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, but I try to see each new day as another opportunity for growth, knowledge, wisdom and adventure. A big plus from that incident is that my oncologist gave me her cell phone number, a very nice resource to have in time of need. You must move along at your own pace, never expecting that one person’s experience will be your own. But each step is movement, and that itself is good in this quagmire we call metastatic BC. Light and love to you, too. xo

  • Nancy’s Point

    Hi Jan,
    I’m always so glad to read a new post of yours. I totally relate to the BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis) thing. Hubby and I quite often use those as markers. The BC days sometimes feel very long ago. And for you, getting the mets diagnosis, well, as you said, then all hell broke loose… I do admire the way you have re-framed your life. Your generous spirit always shines through no matter what you yourself are dealing with. Please do keep speaking your truth and there is never a need to sugar-coat it. Much love to you dear friend.

  • Elizabeth J.

    Excellent post.
    I, too, see life as BC and AD. My metastatic diagnosis was so close on the heels of the original breast cancer treatments, I never really had a break. I do not think my current treatments sound nearly as intensive as yours, but between permanent side effects of the original treatments and the fatigue and aching caused by current treatments, my old life is definitely gone. Some days, I still mourn the life that is gone. More days, I look for how to rebuild with what I can still do now. I don’t think I would still be here at all if God did not have some purpose, something more for me to do.
    You expressed how so many of us feel so eloquently. You neither sugar-coated, as society so often pressures us to do, nor were bitter. You are real and honest. We need a lot more of that these days.

  • Catherine

    We go on. I like that. And like you I now see the divide as before & after the stage four.

  • Audrey

    Oh Jan your raw honesty makes my heart ache. I recognise that acceptance is helpful, railing against it uses up to much valuable energy. I’m more fortunate in that my long term health is impaired by severe asthma only ,not ( yet) metastatic cancer. Sending you my best wishes from a chilly Edinburgh today. Bless you for the wonderful spirit you bring to this community. Love from Audrey

  • Marie Ennis-O’Connor (@JBBC)

    So moved reading this today Jan. I am compiling my weekly round up with a theme of love for Valentine’s Day and this fits the theme so beautifully. You have such a generous and loving heart and it reaches across the divides of time and space. Sending you much love xxxx

  • jhasak

    Much love to you, too, dear Nancy. The BC days do seem so long ago, especially those early ones for me. I don’t plan to sugar-coat anything. There’s nothing sugary sweet about cancer, as you know full well. Thank you very much for your comment. xox

  • jhasak

    Dear Elizabeth, I’m sorry that your metastatic diagnosis was so close to the original treatments. It’s hard to imagine cancer with no real breaks. It’s absolutely normal to mourn the lost days. It’s also normal to look to what brightness we can find in our reformulated lives. I believe, too, that God has a purpose for us in staying alive as we cope to the best of our abilities. Thank you very much for your feedback and for visiting my blog. xo

  • jhasak

    Catherine, it’s so good to hear your affirmation of my sentiments. We do go on. Thanks as always for your kind comments. XOX

  • jhasak

    Audrey, thank you very much for your beautiful words, which warm my heart as February deepens its cold, at least in the northern hemisphere. I pray that you never get metastatic cancer. Asthma can’t be any picnic in the park, either. I always appreciate your encouraging input. XOX

  • jhasak

    Oh, Marie, thanks for including me in your round up for this week, even quoting from a certain passage. I’m inexpressibly touched that my words can reach across time and space into the hearts of readers who need messages of hope. Much love back to you. XOX