I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2016, after I found a lump during a routine self-exam — and on some level, I wasn’t surprised. My father died when I was 19 from lung cancer. My maternal grandmother battled breast cancer twice, my cousin died from colon cancer in her forties, my maternal aunt died from breast cancer the year before my diagnosis, and the list goes on. I dare say that, subconsciously, I knew someday I would be that woman, the one in eight who gets diagnosed with breast cancer.
After the biopsy confirmed I had invasive breast cancer, I was given an appointment at the Breast Center at Yale’s Smilow Cancer Hospital. My husband and I met the doctors who would be my breast surgeon and my oncologist, along with the nursing team and the social worker who immediately advised us on how to break the news to our three daughters — who were then 14, 13 and 10 years old.
We left the hospital in a daze and pulled into our driveway that afternoon knowing the most difficult part of the day was ahead of us. Our three girls greeted us with smiles, having no clue that their world was about to be turned upside down. We had told them nothing about my diagnosis up to this point, as we wanted to wait until I had seen my doctors. Now that a treatment plan was in place, we could no longer put it off.
Having to tell my daughters that I had breast cancer was more painful than getting the diagnosis. I remembered how scared I was as a teenager when I learned my father had cancer. Seeing my daughters have the same conversation broke my heart. To my surprise, only my oldest had questions through her choked sobs. My middle daughter ran from the room and asked to be left alone for a while. My youngest looked at me with tears pouring down her face and asked, “Are you going to die?” I answered, “No, honey. It’s going to be a difficult road for a while and I may get sick from the treatment, but I am not going to die.” With that, she asked me not to talk about it.
That conversation laid the groundwork for how my girls would handle the next year. I made sure they never saw me really sick. Once in treatment, I made sure that I was waiting for them with a snack and a smile every night when they got home. I tried to be strong for them. I cooked dinner most nights, and was up early to pack their lunches and drive them to school. But as treatment progressed, I watched my oldest daughter, then a freshman in high school, get that look of paralyzing fear when it was infusion day or test day. My middle daughter seemed uncomfortable around me from the beginning. And once I lost my hair, she had trouble looking me in the eyes when I walked around the house without a wig. Then there was my youngest, my sweet little girl trying to be a caregiver at 10 years old. “Come lay on the couch, Mommy, you are doing too much and I should be taking care of you,” she would say. I knew all too well that each of them was terrified and trying to handle their fears in different ways.
Seeing how they struggled made me remember how I dealt with my dad’s illness at 17. I felt so close to my dad, and I was confident that he was going to get better, even when they told us his condition was untreatable. They gave him six months to live, and he ended up holding on for a little more than a year. For a while, I was his caregiver, checking up on him and changing his bandages when my mother was too weak in the stomach to look at his wounds from surgery. I sat with him even when we did not say much, just to feel close to him. When his condition worsened, I became so afraid of losing him that I found ways to busy myself so that I could avoid spending time with him. In my teenage mind, I thought I could get used to the idea of not having him if I just separated myself from him while he was still here. So, I took on extra shifts at work, stayed longer at the library, and basically did anything to avoid going home. Thirty-three years later, I still wonder if he realized I wanted nothing more than to be with him every second, but was too wrapped up in my grief and my fears about the idea of living in a world without him.
My girls were not going to have to learn that lesson — not now. I was going to be put in remission and hopefully stay there. My husband looked forward to my treatment ending so that our lives could get back to normal. Yet, when it happened, nothing felt normal to me. I had a litany of problems: fear that the cancer would come back, pain, exhaustion, memory loss, headaches, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Cancer had shattered me, and I needed to put my pieces back together. It’s taken time, but I’ve found ways to do that — but more than anything, I worry about the impact these changes have had on my husband and daughters. They did not ask for this to happen any more than I did.
I know they are grateful for the way things turned out, but I also realize that they miss the old me. The new me takes it easy, instead of pushing myself harder than I need to. The new me forgives herself when she forgets to do something because she did not write it down. This new me is sometimes shy with her husband because of her lopsided implants and scars. But the new me also realizes her body has been through a life-changing, traumatic experience, and it came through for her. The experience inspired me to become an advocate for women with breast cancer, a mission that gives me a sense of belonging and the chance to meet some incredible people to hear their stories.
It’s true that I’m not the same person I was before breast cancer, but I’ve created something positive out of that reality — for myself and for my family. The legacy of cancer I am passing on to my children is different than the one my family left me. It’s a legacy of hope and lifting others up — and loss is nowhere in sight.
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