Dear Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer Patient,
I was diagnosed with breast cancer one year ago today. August 17th, 2009. On this cancerversary, I thought I would share some wisdom with you.
The first thing you need to learn about a diagnosis of breast cancer is that you have to learn stupid terminology such as "cancerversary."
Most professions have their own lingo: in schools, we SARB people, in IT they "image" computers, in Hollywood, the electrician is called a Gaffer. Why an illness has its own terminology is a mystery - but you will learn it. Instead of recovering, you are a Survivor. You don't heal, you have a "New Normal." You have foobs and fipples, have rads and get chemo curl.
I don't know if any other illnesses have their own phrases, although I have a friend with cerebral palsy who sometmes calls himself a gimp. My suggestion is to learn the vocab so you won't be out of the loop, but try not to use it in polite conversation. Discussing your fipples with your mailman is only going to lead to confusion.
The next thing I would like to share with you is that the fear and shock you feel right now will pass. One year ago today, I felt it too. I know it doesn't seem like it will ever go away, and I know you feel like every nerve ending in your body is made out of high voltage wire. You will eat, sleep, dream, and think about nothing but Cancer for quite some time.
I'm sorry to tell you that you will become a bore, because it's all you will talk about. God help anybody who asks how you are doing, because you are likely to tell them. In detail. If somebody cuts you off in traffic, you will be outraged, "How dare you? Don't you know I have CANCER?"
But, as they say, this too shall pass. It will gradually become just a disease you are dealing with, like diabetes or high blood pressure - an inconvenience, but one you can manage. It's hard to understand that during the early days, and I know you don't believe me now, so you'll just have to trust me.
The worst part of a cancer diagnosis is the uncertainty, and the worst part of the uncertainty is at the beginning. You are facing an illness that can take your life. You are facing medical procedures that are unknown and pretty damn scary. You may be facing the loss of a body part or two, or even three, counting hair. You don't know what any of this is like: how you'll feel, how you'll react, how your family will deal with it. All you may know is what you've seen in the movies or on TV. You likely will have many sleepless nights, and be on an information hunt/overload for weeks, if not months - all to try to know what will happen to you - to see into the future.
At some point though, you will come to terms with the fact that knowing the future is impossible, and living with the day you have is all you can do. You will find peace in that.
Looking back on my cancer treatment, do you know what I remember? I remember Bert and Jeannette and laughing in the infusion room. I think of Lynn and my chemo nurse, Joe. I think of my oncologist's funny ties and kind eyes. I'm still in active treatment until December, and in a way, when it's over, I will miss going in.
I also think back on the support of so many people - finding surprises like fabulous shoes or a snugli on my doorstep when I got home, or the meals my workmates contributed towards. I remember Sue, my chemo Angel, who sent me lovely surprises, and Kathy, who tied a ribbon around a tree in my honor, or Dana, my student nurse who treated me with loving care.
Thinking of heartwarming events like that take away any exhaustion you may feel at the moment.
I wish I'd known when I started that the loss of a breast is meaningless. My breasts were my best feature, I thought. I proudly carried them, and dressed around them, and I felt that they made me beautiful. I was devastated at the thought of losing one. Yet even with only one left, and the deformity on the other side, I still feel every bit the woman I did before. My missing breast nursed my babies but in losing it, I find I can be with my babies longer. I don't feel, as many do, that my breasts tried to kill me and so they had to go. To use the omnipresent war comparison - I felt that they were the battleground which had to be sacrificed for the greater good. The land is scarred but the soul survives.
There is a lot of controversy about having a positive attitude. A positive attitude will not change the course of your disease, nor will it cure you, nor should you feel required to put one on all of the time. Someone asked me if a pessimist can beat the disease, and the answer is yes. It's medical science that cures cancer, not attitude.
However, if you can learn to see the positives, the humor, the blessings even, that come from this disease, than your treatment course will be easier on you. I believe that without a doubt. Some of the treatment won't be fun. Some may have long-lasting side effects. But, life goes on, and you have yours. Dwelling on the negatives, overlooking the good things, is, in my opinion, wasting your new life.
A diagnosis of cancer will change you. It may always be in the back of your mind, and yes, nervousness and fear will again pop-up around testing times, but you will learn to manage it and eventually take it in stride.
And, here's the thing: it's up to you whether cancer changes you for the better or not. It's entirely in your control. You can't alter the fact that you have the disease, but you can choose how you react to it.
I want to tell you that I'm very sorry that you have to go through this. But, as horrible as it seems now, it will bring blessings to your life that you never expected. My advice? Look for them, even if it seems impossible.
Especially if it seems impossible.
Because, they are there.