Published on September 16, 2020

Living with a Discipline of Gratitude

Monica CastellanosBefore she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2019, Monica Castellanos didn’t know anyone with the disease or what their experiences were like.

Her diagnosis was the start of an education that she neither expected nor was prepared for.

“I was helping my partner get his house ready to sell when I got the phone call telling me I had breast cancer. The news was absolutely stunning because I was feeling really healthy,” she says. “I was exercising and feeling really good about where I was going professionally, so the news cut to my core. I kept waiting for them to tell me they had made a mistake.”

Every cancer journey is unique and Monica’s was made so, in part, because of the rheumatoid arthritis (RA) condition she has lived with for years. In fact, when she first discovered what she thought was a breast lump, she thought it was related to an RA flare-up she was having at the time.

“When I had the ultrasound, the radiologist said it probably was related to my RA because the lump wasn’t actually in my breast but rather in my lymph node. Because of my flare up, it made sense that I’d have an enlarged lymph node in my underarm,” she says, adding that a follow-up ultrasound several months later showed that the lymph node had shrunk.

But then, in early 2019, the lymph node began to grow again at a time when Monica had her RA under control. That led to another ultrasound, another mammogram, a biopsy and then her diagnosis. More tests followed – an MRI, a CT scan and a bone scan – to determine if the cancer had spread beyond her breast and lymph nodes. Fortunately it hadn’t, but Monica still faced the reality of a very aggressive form of cancer.

Six rounds of chemotherapy from September to late December 2019 were followed by surgery and then five weeks of radiation therapy, which ended in April 2020.

She now takes two immunotherapy drugs every three weeks and will continue until the end of October. And, aside from some hormone therapy, Monica hopes it will be the end of her treatment for many years to come.

While she wishes cancer wasn’t part of her life narrative, Monica, one of three cancer survivors chosen as marshals for MaineGeneral's 2020 Day of Hope, said the experience has made her more appreciative of the important things in her life. She now employs a daily “discipline of gratitude.”

“What I realized was that what was important stayed, and all of the other things just fell to the side. These were things I didn’t need, emotional stuff or physical stuff, which I got rid of,” she says. “And I started practicing the discipline of being grateful for the blessings in my life.”

“It was one neighbor cooking me things, or another coming to my house to clean the cat box regularly. It was my partner doing all the shopping and cooking,” she notes. “There was something to be grateful for every day. I don’t know if I would have gotten to this point in my life as quickly if I hadn’t had cancer. And now, on the other side of it, I feel I’ve kept the things that are really good.”

Monica also says she’s grateful for the wonderful gift of having an excellent cancer center close to home.

“I’d like to say thank you to MaineGeneral for running an amazing cancer center,” she says. “The staff is incredible and I can’t speak highly enough about this facility. I’m glad it was here when I needed it.”