A breast cancer diagnosis out of the blue takes a whole of lot getting used to. The beautiful thing is, is that breast cancer is one of the most curable of all cancers, so we just “get used to it.” It isn’t special. It isn’t unique. Once everyone gets passed the initial lightning bolt of, “Oh. She’s dealing with breast cancer,” the buzz fades and we’re all expected to move on with life. Since my diagnosis in early 2017, I’ve had a lot of time for reflection and resilience training. I’ve had a lot of time to focus and regain clarity. I’ve had moments of the highest highs and the darkest of days in recent memory. We see all these empowering mantras on the t-shirts and coffee mugs - “F*ck cancer,” “I’m a survivor,” “Cancer doesn’t define me,” “Hope,” etc. Those are all wonderful reminders to keep our minds in bright and shiny places, but there are just some ugly truths about what cancer takes from those who have it, deal with it, hopefully, come out of it, well. Alive.
Cancer takes your physical body. Pieces and parts are sliced into and removed. Needles penetrate veins to deliver poison in order to kill a beast that lurks inside. At the same time these poisons are killing away the devil, they’re also attacking what’s whole and healthy and in good working condition in our natural ecosystem. Ironic, huh? Breasts are removed. Armpits are carved into. Scars make road maps across a once pristine, benevolent landscape. Cancer will never allow your body to be the same again. It’s time for a new normal.
Cancers takes your mind. “Going there” is easy to do if you spend time in chat rooms and social connection apps where survivors commiserate, offer up advice, and just plain vent. This can be a much needed, comforting support when you feel alone in the process, but it can also lead further into the “what if” darkness. You hear complaints of side effects. You hear advice for overcoming side effects. You learn about people losing their battles. You hear stories of survivors 25+ years out. Every single diagnosis is different; there is NEVER a one-size-fits-all when it comes to any of this. Ease of mind, and taking it back from cancer, comes from real knowledge, asking professionals for advice, seeking out the most natural, holistic, and homeopathic treatments available, relying on close friends who have “been there.” These have been the most comforting, and results-driven, exercises in stealing my mind back from this bitch.
Cancer takes your future...but, only for a fleeting moment. There is the diagnosis, where the whole world as you know it, stops. Then, there is the fear. What stage is it? Will I die from this? What is my course of treatment? Tests after tests after tests are run. Then comes decision time: surgery, chemo, radiation? Combo of some? Combo of all? What about holistic treatments? How long? Will I have any quality of life with this? What are the long-lasting side effects of all this foreign crap I’m putting myself through? More questions than answers, and everything that seemed to matter, or find a placeholder on the calendar of life, takes a back seat to losing your hair, losing weight, gaining weight, nerve pain, constipation and/or diarrhea, and the never-ending guessing game of whether you’re going to feel anything remotely close to human again for the foreseeable future.
Cancer takes patience. I’ve never been a patient person. Ever. I encounter a problem. I explore solutions. I want action. Straight lines from Point A to Point B make me happy. Well, sad to say, getting through breast cancer is a process. A long , squiggly, and oftentimes, backtracking and rebooting one. Apparently, I'll never get “over it.” It’s part of who I am now. From diagnosis to the “cured” flag, it will be almost an entire year of life. Through three surgeries, 16 weeks of chemo, and 28 radiation treatments, and all the "recovery periods" - all of this takes time. I’ve come to learn a great deal of patience through this journey: patience with the process, patience with my loved ones, and most importantly, patience (coupled with some self forgiveness) with myself. Taking every day as the gift that it is and making the most of the “good days” helps getting through the darker days much more palatable.
While yes, cancer takes, it cannot possibly take everything.
Cancer cannot take the core of who I am. I was made crystal clear of this, early on especially, from Facebook posts, messages, emails, and cards where those who know me best actually lamented for the cancer being stuck with me. Wait. What?! Must say something about the inherent badassery that lurks (and always has) inside me. At first, the posts made me think, "Ghheeeez...am I that intimidating? Really?" Turns out, all is well with the world. It takes a high frequency of badassery to beat back this creep called cancer. Determination, focus, and a HUGE sense of clarity were actually gifts from this whole $h1+show of an experience.
Cancer cannot take my irrepressible spirit to learn. I unabashedly love learning, and through all of this, not everything learned was pleasant, but it was valuable. I learned quickly who my true friends were, who the mild, curious acquaintances were, who the inspirational warriors and supporters fighting the fight right alongside me the whole way were. I learned that there are just some people, for whatever reason, best removed from my space to make room for the hoards of authentic connections and relationships grown from this whole nightmare. It’s those people who have made me a better person. And, I thank them all with my whole heart.
I learned the thought that I can do it all, be it all, and have it all...by myself...is one big, fat lie. I've also learned to honor that little nugget of information and forge ahead...and graciously accept help when offered.
Gifts of new opportunities and doors opened, and clarity beyond measure of what my true purpose and intentions are for the remainder of my days have grown from this nasty bout with a devil. And for that, yes. I am grateful for this godawful life experience. Gratitude is something cancer cannot take from me. Ever.
That, and hope.