The author on a whitewater kayaking trip.

How a ‘Game’ Helps Me Fight Fears of Cancer Recurrence

I’m dreading September 2019 for two reasons:

1. I’ll be ending my relationship with tamoxifen, a drug that has helped me stay in remission from breast cancer since 2009.

2. My favorite TV show, Game of Thrones, will have completed its final season, so I won’t have any new episodes to look forward to.

Images of the author in 2009 going through cancer treatment and in 2018.You might think it’s strange to mention a serious topic such as breast cancer and a fantasy drama in the same conversation. But my breast cancer saga is also quite strange, so I hope you’ll humor me as I share my story.

The average female breast cancer survivor is 62 years old when she’s diagnosed with the disease. But I was only 30 when I joined the pink ribbon community. According to the National Cancer Institute, I had just a 0.44 percent chance — or 1 in 227 odds — of getting breast cancer at age 30.

So I’m special — but not in a good way.

Just call me ‘Lady Mormont’

In Game of Thrones, Lady Lyanna Mormont is a precocious preteen who handles more adversity and responsibilities than anyone her age should ever face. In fact, she’s the leader of her entire community, the House of Mormont of Bear Island.

My precocious experience wasn’t quite as daunting as Lady Mormont’s, but it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in December 2008, after I discovered a tumor during a breast self-exam. I had no family history of the disease. And I tested negative for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations that drastically increase a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer.

Like many younger women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, my cancer was advanced and aggressive. (It was Stage 3 and had spread to most of my lymph nodes under my right armpit.) Because of those factors, my medical oncologist estimated that I had a 60 percent chance of recurrence. Almost 10 years later, that number still scares me. So I indulge in a little Game of Thrones escapism to give my anxiety a diversion.

Fight like a Khaleesi

The author superimposed over a Game of Thrones scene.I refer to breast cancer as “The Night King and his army of White Walkers.” Back in 2008, to rid my body of those evil forces, my oncology surgeon performed a lumpectomy in my right breast and lymph-node dissection under my right armpit.

After I recovered from my surgery, I gained these allies for the next phase of my cancer battle:

16 rounds of wildfire chemotherapy
A radiation-breathing dragon, who gave me 35 treatments
A pack of Herceptin® direwolves, who protected me against recurrence of HER2-positive breast cancer
The Wall of tamoxifen, a pill I’ve taken every day for nine-plus years to avoid recurrence of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer

In addition, from 2010 to 2013, I traveled about a dozen times to a mystic land called Washington, D.C., for a clinical trial. By participating in the clinical trial, I received an experimental Valyrian steel vaccine against breast cancer recurrence.

The night is dark and full of terrors

Even though I’ve been in remission for nine-plus years, I never feel like I’m completely out of the woods.

I have annual visits with my medical oncologist, along with a yearly mammogram and breast MRI to make sure I’m still cancer-free. Every time I have an exam or experience random body aches or fatigue, I feel nervous.

And my anxiety is sure to increase next year, when I lose my last line of defense: The Wall of tamoxifen. I’ll stop taking this drug because I’ll have reached my 10-year limit for hormonal therapy.

But I’m determined to have some measure of control. So in hopes of keeping my immune system healthy, I’ve nurtured my mind, body and soul with:

Support group meetings with other cancer survivors
Maiya modeling at a fashion show.Enriching activities, such as kayaking in Montana with other young cancer survivors and modeling art bras during a cancer organization’s annual fundraiser.
• Dance fitness and kickboxing classes
• Anti-depressants and talk therapy sessions to manage my clinical depression
• Acupuncture and cupping treatments
• Church sermons and spiritual discussions
• Foods that are organic and rich in antioxidants
• Personal hygiene products that are free of aluminum and bleached cotton
• Make-believe vacations in Highgarden and Dorne

Is winter coming (again)? I hope not

This time next year, when Game of Thrones has ended and my tamoxifen era has concluded, I’ll begin a new chapter in my life.

At first, it will be scary, because cancer remission is a fragile thing that can be disrupted by the slightest change. But instead of dwelling on that uncertainty, I’m going to:

• Remain grateful to be alive.
• Continue to honor the memories of my friends who died from cancer.
• Find a new TV show to intertwine with my reality.
• Figure out how to repay the universe for all my blessings. After all, a Hayes always pays her debts.

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Image of Maiya Hayes, the author.Maiya Hayes is a senior writer and editor, Corporate Communications, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. She’s a proud cat mom and devoted sister to a Labrador retriever. A former sports journalist, her hobbies include brunching after exercising and daydreaming about being a backup dancer for Beyoncé. She loves TV shows, movies, podcasts and audiobooks, and hates wearing socks.

All photos courtesy of Maiya Hayes. 

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