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Three Steps to Rebuilding Relationships and Regaining Strength—Physically and Emotionally

Stephanie Zurek describes her journey of rebuilding her relationship with her fiancé as well as her own physical strength after battling cancer.

Stephanie was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2017at the age of 35. Despite no known family history of breast cancer, she tested positive for the BRCA 2 mutationduring the diagnostic assessment phase. Prior to starting treatment, she attempted an intense, but ultimately unsuccessful, round of IVF to preserve a few viable eggs. Following chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and radiation, Stephanie elected to undergo a prophylactic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy to decrease her risk of ovarian cancer and of breast cancer recurrence. Stephanie lives in Providence with her husband -who proposed the night before she started chemo -and their two dogs in ahome full of love, laughter, and unfinished projects.

Cancer is a three-way fight. After the cancer had been attacking my body for days, weeks, or months – I don’t know - I found a telltale lump and quickly met a care team that could outline a counter-attack. That counter-attack was advanced through decades of scientific research and I trusted my team to make the right calls.

During chemotherapy, I understood my weak and fatigued body to be a shell; it only had to be strong enough to contain the battle going on under the skin. No stone was left unturned during those sixteen treatments – from my head to my toes, every inch of my body was assaulted. The hair loss, brain fog, eye infections, nose bleeds, neuropathy, discolored fingernails, hot flashes, nausea, sores, dryness, constipation, and restless legs proved that the fight was well underway inside of me. This was a battle that I wanted my body to facilitate within its arena. I wanted those drugs to travel to every corner, occupy every cell, and not back down. I rested. I let my family and friends take over. I gave in. I did not want to waste any bit of energy that could be used to fuel the war.

The four surgeries left permanent physical scars and temporary emotional scars. The twenty-six rounds of radiation induced depression, fried my skin, and desiccated my muscles. When I was released back into my ‘normal’ life, with a heightened awareness of mortality, pain, and suffering, my anxiety skyrocketed. Because we had not lived together prior to my treatment, my fiancé and I clumsily stumbled toward daily routines suitable for two able-bodied adults. But, in the weeks and months following my treatment, I waged my own fight. I was left with a body, and a heart, that so badly needed to heal and I wanted to do everything I could to attack that brokenness.

My ongoing healing battle is invisible to all but my closest family members. Just when I thought I was free from the litany of doctor’s appointments that accompany diagnosis and treatment, and friends and co-workers were congratulating me for being done, I did not realize how much I would have to fight to heal. When doctors tell you that it takes at least a year to recover from treatment and surgeries, believe them. It is amazing how spot on that prognostication was for me. But, it has not been a year of sitting idly by. During the past year, I have benefitted immensely from reaching out to friends, doctors, and therapists for resources, recommendations, and connections that might help advance my healing process.

First, I needed help dealing with my emotional highs and lows. One of my initial calls was to a psychiatrist. The prescriptions calmed my nerves and helped me see situations more rationally. The next call I made was to a therapist. I had been seeing my own therapist throughout my treatment and relied on having that space to explore my many questions and fears each week. With this new therapist I was seeking help with my relationship with my

fiancé. He had been my armor throughout the past eight months and there was no way that we could escape the roles of patient and caregiver without the help. After signing up for a couple’s therapist, I also called a sex therapist who had been recommended to me by a friend. My sex therapist helped normalize my feelings and my body’s physical changes. She also connected me to a support group for young women with cancer. The women in the support group validated my experiences, cheered me on, and continue to provide an environment of true understanding.

Once I felt like I was on a semi-solid emotional footing, I started seeing a physical therapist. She massaged the muscles in my underarm that were taut from radiation and a lymph node dissection. I started taking a daily regimen of vitamins to combat my risk of osteoporosis and, once my energy started to bounce back, I made an effort to go grocery shopping and cook dinner at home. I resumed my pre-cancer habit of morning walks with my dogs. At first, we had to go slow and not very far, but over the course of several months, I built up enough strength and stamina to go further and challenge them to a short runs down the block. Now, I am seeing an acupuncturist to treat my menopausal side effects. Next up is a program with a personal trainer to build my confidence in starting a fitness regimen.

If you are just completing treatment, congratulations! You can finally take that long, deep breath and exhale with relief and joy. Then, catalogue your injuries, both physical and emotional, and get ready for your battle. It is going to be long and slow, so be patient. But, remember that this is the fight where you can call the shots.

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