Like many of us living in today’s modern and very complex world, I believe that if we live long enough, we will all eventually become a survivor of something extraordinary during our lifetime. I believe we will all in essence, become survivors and overcomers of some major life altering event, grand challenge, or greater difficulty as we continue to journey and pilgrimage over the course of our lifetime.
In my personal life I alone, I was now a cancer survivor amongst many other things I had experienced up to this point in time. In becoming a cancer survivor, I also found myself having to overcome other multiple challenges and various obstacles along my own personal journey from diagnosis to survivorship. Like many of us, I had no choice at that time but to accept my life on life’s terms while also trying to remain optimistic and hopeful during one of the most challenging seasons I had ever experienced to date. As one can imagine, it isn’t easy trying to balance the various complexities of practical everyday life, while also trying to battle a life threatening disease like cancer. Our family had been through so much during that season of our lives and my one and only daughter, had herself, also become a survivor of sorts, in the wake of a medical report that touched our entire family network.
My faithful daughter along with me, had been experiencing my cancer diagnosis and the disease process up close and personal for days, weeks, and months on end. I am so very proud of my little girl, as at the precious age of 6 years old, she herself had bravely walked this path alongside me at no choice or fault of her own, as many of our loved ones also do. She had never asked to sign up for this diagnosis just as much as I hadn’t asked to be signed up for the diagnosis myself. The news from the medical report was something that threw us both “through a loop” and into great uncertainty. The medical report had placed me in a very gray area of what I would call, “the great unknown,” and everything in my life from that point on, became a giant question mark. Not knowing what lie ahead on our long road to survivorship, my daughter and I together, both battled cancer for an intense and very pressing 10 month period of time.
As our story slowly unfolded over those long days and eventual weeks that never seemed to end, she watched me, her mother, slowly dwindle away to disease, as we both began to lose much of what we one held so dearly in our lives. We had in our own story, experienced hardship after hardship at no fault of our own, as our family faced new and unexpected challenges and heartbreak, at what felt like every twist and turn imaginable along our long and very rugged road to recovery.
And as our personal story with cancer goes, it was far from perfect and became our very own personal “war story” of sorts. And though various pieces of our story were messy at times, in all of it, there was still hope accessible. I have come to find that many of what my daughter and I experienced, is very relatable to many and may sound familiar to your own story at times. In walking this path, we have come to find that none of us are immune to crisis happening to us in this life. Eventually, hard times fall upon us all in this world and my personal story is just one of countless millions of other stories that are yet to be heard, voiced and shared with a world around us. A world that I believe is in desperate need of real tangible “hope” especially while battling a life-threatening diagnosis.
I have discovered that by sharing our personal story with the world around us, it is in fact what makes us not only human but humane. It also makes us relatable too, and we want our patrons to know that there are countless families just like them, who have also braved the same unknown path as we have, facing some of the same practical and overwhelming day-to-day challenges in their fight against disease. In all of this, I can honestly say that hope and connection to others, remains the key to uncertainty and our present day challenges.
I think we all have something to fight for in this life. In experiencing all of this, I have come to the realization that in this world none of us are immune to a crisis happening to us and that tragedy can strike anyone, anywhere, at any point in time over the course of their lifetime. Just like me, many of you have also experienced various catastrophic events and unexplainable heart break in your own personal lives. These major life events can sometimes create a “domino effect” and can turn our worlds upside down and inside out, in a matter of moments and what was once just a single crisis, can ultimately turn into multiple crises.
As the various pieces of our lives begin to fall out of place, piece by piece, we found ourselves falling into greater despair, grief and distress at no fault of our own due to the new unexpected challenges at hand, that our medical report introduced. After walking this unknown path in its entirety with my daughter, I found that in aftermath of chaos, we still had the opportunity to finish our course here in this world with greater expectancy and with hope for better days to follow. In our hearts we believed that we could still be overcomers and survivors, even in the wake of our own unfathomable, personal crises. And though none of this has happened overnight, my family and I, are slowly piecing back together all the various components of our lives that had once left us feeling paralyzed and in fear. I’m happy today to share that we are now standing on the other side of this crises stronger than ever! I truly appreciate how very much we have all grown and how far we have all come since the very first moment we had ever heard the dreaded “C” word— introduced into our circumstances. We are now all living on the other side of the diagnosis in full-fledged survivorship.
To share just an overview of my entire story, it was a very bittersweet journey as I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma at just thirty six (36) years old. This instantly made me a unique statistic that placed me in a category of seven (7%) of women, under the age of forty (40), that had been diagnosed with the disease of breast cancer. What made this medical diagnosis even more difficult to navigate, was the fact that I was also a single mother to a precious 6 year old little girl named Isabella Iris-Marie, when I first learned of my diagnosis. My daughter, at such a young and tender age, had depended upon me for most everything up to that point in time. I loved my daughter completely and just as any parent with the blessing of a child can imagine, there were moments walking through the disease process together where I felt completely helpless as her mother, all alone and beyond hope.
During 2016, we both experienced our entire worlds being turned upside down and inside out in a matter of what felt like moments in just “the blink of an eye.” It all was so painstaking and I had so wished during that period of time in both of our lives, that I would have be able to do so much more for my daughter than I was ever able to do physically. To no surprise, I became so physically and emotionally weakened and exhausted by all the various complex cancer treatments that I was unable to care for her or myself, in the former ways that I once had. This was not normal for us whatsoever. Prior to this, I was always on the go and had a “type-A personality," which is why it was so extremely heart breaking for me at times, as I found everything in our day-to-day to eventually pose a major challenge for us. Yet, we still both braved the cancer care path in its entirety regardless of the various challenges that were present.
With the new set of challenges that this diagnosis brought, I was no longer the same independent, energetic, physically strong person that I knew myself to once be and the world around us also knew me to be. I remember wanting so badly to just be able to have my physical strength back again and to just have the diagnosis of cancer up and disappear, pack up its bags and just take a one-way-ticket elsewhere and go away. I just wanted to have my health back and for everything in our lives go back to normal, just the way that it had been for us before the disease settled into my body and set up camp in each of our lives. However, this was not my family’s reality and a much harder road still lay ahead of us.
As is true for many of us, after hearing the shocking news that you have been diagnosed with cancer, many of us experience great shock and are in pure disbelief, to say the least. Either way, I like most people, had never dreamt that in my mid-thirties (30’s) that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer and literally fighting for my life each and every day at every twist and turn imaginable. All the while, on the long road to recovery, my 6 year old daughter was looking to me for her livelihood every day and was completely dependent upon me to make it through these unimaginable circumstances. All I wanted to do was be able to continue on our life course together and press on towards what I hoped to be much better days ahead to follow.
Due to these facts alone, I quickly found myself having to make extremely difficult treatment decisions that would forever alter me physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually as the cancer made its mark on our entire life’s course. During that first year post diagnosis, our entire family faced a new set of overwhelming and challenging circumstances that were extremely horrific, painful and all but beyond our control to say the least. In the wake of my cancer diagnosis our family quickly found ourselves having to navigate through new and unchartered territory in many different faucets of our lives, some of which, were completely unrelated to the disease itself. Looking back on it all now, I can honestly say that I was only able to manage these various and complex pieces on my own accord, due to the fact that I had faith, hope, and previous professional experience working in health care prior where I coordinated care for countless families in Colorado while working with seniors in health care.
Prior to my diagnosis, in my professional career, I had counseled and coordinated various pieces of health care for countless families across the Front Range and beyond. I had worked in Independent Living, Assisted Living, and Memory Care communities prior to my diagnosis. I just loved being able to help people in this capacity and experience along with each person and their loved ones, the genuine difference that our support made in the lives of those I was honored to serve daily. Now in my own disease process, I had the ability to take this passion of mine and couple it with my related work experience, in order to fight for my own precious life and coordinate my own care.
While battling cancer, I also had to fight for my family and for our future together—specifically my daughters. With the former work experience I had in senior living, it made easier to navigate all the various complexities of the health care system at large. So, here I found myself working through the complexities of the disease process while experiencing distress. Thankfully, I had the prior knowledge and experience to draw from, so various parts of our journey were somewhat easier to navigate than others were.
With that being shared, it seems ironic that more often than not, even as the expert ourselves, when we experience our own personal health care challenge or crisis, everything we have come to know and have learned up to that point in time, can sometimes literally go right “out the window.” When we find ourselves here in a similar situation, many of us become overwhelmed and lose ourselves in a maze of health care professionals and medical institutions. We find ourselves having multiple unanswered questions and various unknowns, in the wake of a major crisis or multiple crises. It almost seems natural that in these often overwhelming life changing circumstances, one can find themselves also experiencing shock, disbelief, bewilderment, and fear to say the least.
Many of our families also find themselves trying to battle the voices of self-doubt and fear, as growing concerns can loom over each new day that passes. The diagnosis in itself ultimately affects each individual person in the family unit a little bit differently, as each single person processes these life changing events internally/externally, in their own unique manner. Many question their faith, life and death circumstances, and what they would like to do next with the time they have left. Like many of us, we want to make the best decisions we can possibly make for ourselves and our families and want nothing more than to have the best outcomes possible. How do you take action and be proactive not reactive, while finding yourself in the great unknown?
As most can imagine, as a single mother in my mid 30’s, there was a lot of extra pressure placed on me and it wasn’t an easy task at all, to manage and make all these tough decisions by myself, in what felt like “the spur of the moment.” The other major problem was that there was just not enough time available in each 24 hour period to be able to tackle all that was on my plate now. It takes time and precious energy to fully process, coordinate, and organize all the various pieces of a new diagnosis and the prospective treatments that still lie ahead. It also takes precious energy to rejuvenate the body after it experiences any kind of surgery and after walking through the multiple treatment(s) sessions.
During these difficult times, there was constant pressure on me, as I tried my very best to plan my treatment course to the best of my ability with very limited support from those around us, as the majority of our family resided on the west coast. All the while, there was a great sense of urgency placed upon us and at moments it felt as if time itself, was often working against us. When faced with an unexpected medical report like cancer that is complex in nature, it must be addressed immediately. Many of us turn to our clinical team, our family, our faith, and our friends for guidance.
As my story goes, I had no time to really process everything that was happening to my family as I had never imagined in a million years that I would have to complete certain steps in the treatment process like putting together my own end-of-life planning, as I was just in my mid-thirties at that time. I literally had no idea that I would need to get all my “ducks in a row” so to speak and plan for the possibility that I might not actually survive my diagnosis. If the worst case scenario was to happen to me and I was to ultimately pass from this world due to disease, then what would happen to my daughter? I did not want my daughter to be left behind and alone in this world, without me, her one and only Mom. She needed me and I needed her. She was my little “anchor of hope” here in this world and I didn’t want to leave her by herself, without me, her one and only mother.
To be honest, I didn’t want to leave any of my loved ones behind, especially without a plan of action or without a specific set of instructions including what was most important to me and what my wishes were for my daughter and her precious future yet to unfold. In essence, I wanted my family and friends to know what was important to me and ensure that they fully understood what my wishes were and what my own personal values and belief system entailed and how to appropriately honor them upon my behalf, if the worst case scenario were to actually happen to us. In all of it, I didn’t want to think about death and the possibility of dying, as all I wanted at that time was to live, be healthy again and fight for my life, no matter what that entailed, at all costs. No medical report shared with me, was going to keep me down, not ever! I wanted to live and had a great fight still left inside me.
Thus, I had to quickly contemplate a plan of action with my medical team and found myself charting new and unknown territory in my life personally and professionally. I felt so beside myself trying to piece the various components of cancer care together and at the root of it all, I was just living in constant fear. I remember like it was yesterday, how very much I felt frustrated and alone during that extremely overwhelming time in our family’s life. I felt at that time as if there was no one else in the entire world that could possibly relate to me personally, during those moments of complete and total despair and grief. I also felt lost in all the various complexities of the disease and the management of my own cancer care, as it was very complex to organize and far more difficult than one could ever imagine it to be.
Due to this, it became a new norm for me to try and balance multiple physical side effects as a result of the treatments while also visiting multiple providers across town who were a part of my treatment regimen at that time. The side effects I experienced only added to the greater difficulty in navigating the continuum of care by myself, as it compounded my original problems stemming from the original diagnosis and made my journey that much more difficult to traverse.
And even though I had people in my life that truly cared about me, I felt more isolated than ever during that time, as breast disease statistically affected women who were in their 60'sn and 70's. What also made my own personal journey more challenging at that time, was the fact that I didn’t know any other women at that point in time who were my age, that I could relate to and look to for inspiration and hope. I desperately needed someone to learn from who had also braved the course before me that I could draw hope and inspiration from. To no avail, here I was just 36 years old and fighting for my life on a daily basis while also trying my best to live beyond breast cancer. Oh, how I longed to identify with someone my own age that had been there and done that while being a single mom and also working full time without a partner. It was all a lot to process for any one person, no matter how strong you were, how old you were, or who you were. Cancer takes from us all.
As you can imagine, in the middle of our family’s storm, I listened to my medical teams advice and their clinical recommendations made based upon the test results and their expert understanding of my disease. After much deliberation, I had decided for myself, to go ahead with the recommended surgical procedure (mastectomy) and also opted to complete the aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment afterwards, as that was also part of my treatment course suggested. This was an intense ten (10) month period of time where I went from treatment to treatment as my body tried to keep up in the aftermath of recovery. As I look back now, everything was somewhat of a blur, as every day was a fight to remain hopeful and stay alive. I can honestly say that all I really remember was constantly attending doctor visits, being poked and prodded, and attending countless treatment sessions. All of this in a nutshell, was followed by a much needed rest and recovery period, along my long road to healing and restoration. It was so very extremely hard for our entire family unit to say the least but even harder on me, was having to experience the cancer destroy my own body and take away what it could from me and my family while threatening our future together.
My personal journey and treatments began with a double mastectomy surgery that took place on February 22, 2016. The morning following this major surgery was my official “belly-button birthday.” I literally woke up on my 37th birthday coming out of a double mastectomy surgery, without my natural breasts and instead I had two very prominent scars left behind, that now lay across my chest where my breasts once were. They say that every warrior has his/her scars and boy, did I sure have mine. Various people called this necessary surgery, one of the greatest birthday gifts ever bestowed upon me, as they shared that at the exact moment that the surgery was completed, I was in fact, living “cancer-free” as the disease was forever removed. Though this may have been a true statement made, my heart was still very heavy as I emotionally grieved the physical loss of my breasts, while experiencing all the other various components of my life that forever changed, after the diagnosis of cancer welcomed itself into my life.
I remember at that time, as I looked in the mirror each day while getting out of the shower or while dressing, I was mortified and reminded of my significant loss after viewing my new scars in place of where my natural breasts had once been. It was a constant reminder of the pain that followed the medical report, forever altering my life moving forward. It was overwhelming in nature as I had now become a statistic and an amputee, all in one day. If that weren’t hard enough for me to process at that time, what I didn’t know was having my breasts removed due to disease was just the beginning of a much more pressing journey that was still ahead along my path to recovery.
Once I was back home and recouping from my surgery, my clinical team began mapping out a course of an intense intravenous chemotherapy regimen that would ultimately be “topped off” with 25 rounds of pure radiation to my chest. In a matter of moments—my entire world slowly unraveled and simply fell apart post-surgery, all I could do was lay in the hospital bed on my birthday, tears of brokenness and disbelief both, streaming down my face.
What was even more difficult and gut wrenching was having to experience other tragic, unimaginable, and unexpected life events that also trailed my cancer diagnosis, while my treatments were well underway. I found out quickly that sometimes in life, when it rains, it also pours! In a matter of what went from seconds to minutes, from minutes to hours, from hours to days, eventually led to weeks and months of unexpected challenges that plagued our family and raged against us with one blow to the next, round after round. Literally, from one single crisis to the next, all of our worlds were turned upside down and inside in what was one of the most devastating periods, in all of our lives experienced to date.
Here is a very brief timeline that represents the “perfect storm” in my own personal life that had been experienced, after my breast cancer was confirmed, over the course of an intense ten (10) month period.
Timeline of related events that Melissa Snyder (Founder of Survivorship Care) experienced during her own brave battle, with cancer:
November 2015: Notice an abnormal and painless lump in left breast
December 2015: Visit to primary care physician confirms mass & referral given to receive a mammogram
December 2015: Mammogram visit: imaging confirms mass is present in left breast
January 2016: Two (2) separate biopsies completed, confirming cancerous
findings (invasive ductal carcinoma) and further spreading of the disease
January 2016: Share the news with closest family members, with fiancé who I had just became engaged to, and also with my personal network of friends
January 2016: Meet with breast cancer surgeon and established a surgery treatment plan (double mastectomy) and established a set surgery date
January 2016: Shared the news of my new diagnosis with employer and set up a timeline based upon treatment schedule and expected recovery period post-surgery
January 2016: Meet with various reconstructive, plastic surgeon(s) to explore other options available, post mastectomy surgery
February 2016: Medical insurance deductible met and financial planning for remaining cancer care treatment & projected course
February 2016: Double Mastectomy surgery completed to remove both breasts and left lymph node removal/dissection completed, at same time
February 2016: Surgery and findings confirm that cancer had spread to lymph nodes and chemotherapy included in treatment plan
February 2016: Short-term Disability (start)
March 2016: Recovery from surgery
April 2016: Emergency room visit due to complications stemming from a hematoma in the right breast following mastectomy surgery
May 2016: Intravenous chemotherapy treatment regimen start
May 2016: My significant other at that time (fiancé), unexpectedly loses his one and only child to suicide and together we experience this significant loss up close and personal, while walking through all the various pieces of the tragedy together, we also continue to navigate through my cancer diagnosis
June 2016: Hair loss begins due to side effects of chemotherapy, and I begin to cope with the loss of my culturally defining hair and physically changes taking place in my body
June 2016: Support of friends begins to taper off and very few people left in our social network that we could count on in the immediate geographical area, once tragedy struck again
June 2016: Personal engagement abruptly ending to significant other and our wedding was “called off” entirely leaving both of us alone and heart broken
June 2016: Emergency room visit #2, complications and physical side effects of chemotherapy
June 2016: End-of-Life planning
June 2016: Radiation to start and 5 weeks of radiation to be given to chest daily, M-F
July 2016: Managing the various side effects of chemotherapy and radiation present (physically, financially, emotionally, & spiritually)
July 2016: Termination from job, career ending
July 2016: Loss of all healthcare benefits due to job loss and begin paying for COBRA (large expense) in order to have medical coverage and be able to continue forward with remaining treatment plan
July 2016: My family hears the tragic news of an unexpected car accident where a family member and adult, both lose their lives unexpectedly
August 2016: 25 rounds of radiation completed and end of final course of treatment
August 2016: Family member, without warning, placed in prison and behind bars
August 2016: Treatment ending
August 2016: Survivorship planning begin
September 2016: Road to recovery (physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, and other)
September 2016: Short-term disability (end)
September 2016-present: Complete lifestyle change and learning how to manage the long term side effects of treatment and to continue to remain hopeful and cancer free, through ongoing and continued survivorship planning
October 2016-present: Start new position in health care and continue in survivorship while remaining hopeful that the cancer will never again return or rear its ugly head…
This timeline only represents a “snapshot” and tiny fraction of my cancer journey experienced personally and collectively with my family to date. When piecing this story together, I wanted to be as transparent as possible in sharing all of the various ups and downs experienced along our road to recovery in survivorship. I want every single person reading this story to be encouraged that if my family and I, had in fact made it through those various ups and downs along our timeline and in the wake of other traumatic events, then no matter what extraordinary obstacles, challenges, or personal crises you may be facing today, you too, can make it to the other side of your journey and step into a new chapter/season in your life. But most importantly, I believe that you can make it through to the other side with hope, in restoration (healing), and with a greater expectation that your best days are still out ahead of you and yet to come to fruition.
And though various pieces of my own personal journey may never make much sense to me, the simple fact is that I am still here, living alive and well today. I am a true miracle just like I believe we all are. I am someone who does not take this precious life for granted and have been given a second chance at this life. By the goodness and grace of God alone and in hope believing, I’m still here standing strong on the other side of all of my cancer treatments and various life challenges. And to the disbelief of many, I’m still contributing to the world around me in health care—as I now know that in crisis, with the right people, places, opportunities, and things in place, all things are truly attainable in this life and are possible. I believe with all of my heart that no matter what the medical report might state or what you and your family may encounter along your journey, you too, can also be a courageous survivor and an overcomer in every area of your life.
There is and always will be a greater purpose behind all the pain and uncertainty, I promise. I believe we must never forget that miracles still happen around us each and every day even in the middle of some of the hardest chapters and seasons in our life. We must be willing to look and see these events and circumstances with eyes of faith.
Miracles as I have come to know them, come in a variety of forms.. It is up to each of us individually, to either choose to leave the door of hope cracked open to all possibilities or to give up and fold under the weight and pressures of our circumstances and life challenges. I implore you to keep the door of hope cracked open, as if you do, you’ll be amazed where it can ultimately guide and lead you too, as that is where true miracles exist!
And though I’m far from perfect and my life circumstances may be extraordinary in nature, I know in fact, that these experiences of mine are not unique at all. Over the past many years, I’ve found that many of my clients have also experienced their own unexpected heart break and life altering circumstances that forever changed their entire life course, in the blink of an eye. But I have seen their miracles too and heard their stories of hope and preservation. In navigating all of the uncertainty, I promise you that there is and always “real tangible hope” available to you to access, no matter what your circumstances or diagnosis might be or what you or your family may be currently experiencing or walking through personally to date.
Miracles happen all around us, to all ages and in all walks of life no matter what the circumstances are. And though I do not make light of any of your hardships or mine, I truly believe that if our family made it through to the other side of our journey, then you too can also make it through to the other side of your present storm. If nothing else, keep moving forward as there is truly no feeling in the entire world like that of finally stepping into a new day, a new chapter, and a brand new season in life after the experiencing all of the hard parts.
If nothing else, remember that there will be an end to all of the pain and in the scheme of things, it’s worth all the painful enduring in the meantime. I believe I am a much better person today due to all of the breaking and the remaking of my life due to one single diagnosis. My life which was once “a mess” due to disease, is now turning into quite the masterpiece. All things take time to create and you too, will have your very own masterpiece one day to step back and admire, I promise.
At Survivorshipcare.org we are your “go to” partner in caring, as we have also been there too. We strive to help our clients obtain the best in cancer care management, care coordination, survivorship planning, and in advocacy no matter what the medical report might state or the crisis at hand might be. Never forget that on the other side of every difficult journey, there are beautiful opportunities awaiting you that you have yet to experience, discover and partake in.
Our team will ensure that we can be there to assist and support our patrons, each and every step along the way, as your go to “partner in caring” from diagnosis through to survivorship. We encourage, motivate, support and serve from a place of compassion, empathy, sympathy, hopefulness and in great expectation for better days to follow.
I will close my personal story by simply stating that I am, Melissa Kaye. I am a brave, bold, and fierce cancer survivor. I am also your dedicated Care Manager and advocate in your battle and fight against disease. I will ensure that we “stand in the gap” for you and your family by offering the best in cancer care management.
With that being shared, never give up, never give in, and remember that no matter what you may be up against or facing today, all things are truly possible to those who believe. I look forward to meeting with you and your family very soon. From one survivor to the next—you can do this!
Your faithful “partner in caring,”
-Melissa Kaye Snyder
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