LIVING WITH BREAST CANCER
I’ve spent my life in the shadow of this disease. In the 60s and 70s it seemed barbaric what they did to my mother and many of her sisters as they continued to fight on for the last five to 10 years of their lives. My mother’s doctor refused to increase her pain killers as she lay dying during the last seven months. His reasoning: she’ll become addicted. Become addicted!? And then when she passed away he wrote her death up as caused by malnutrition. After all she didn’t eat. Right? It was barbaric then. It is not now.
We have hope and longer lives and easier passages. We have early detection and surgical as well as therapeutic advancements. I live in a small community and I have several female friends of a certain age who are surviving breast cancer. In a small town it is odd to know more than a handful, but I do and none of them live with it as a definer. I think that’s the key.
Once the verdict is in and you decide to digest it, tell the kids, get your ducks lined up in a row, you have to grit your teeth and agree to the path. That changes your perspective. Even about yourself. It can also change your family’s direction. The women I know have met this head on and to quote Fran Drescher, ‘cancer shmancer’. Get on with it. Have your life- take time out to pay attention to the good people and good things you live amongst. B R E A T H E There are the 5 common steps: detection, biopsy, chemo, radiation, surgery. You’re scarred and amputated. Even if you have reconstruction, another seemingly endless journey, you have doubts, renewed body awareness, sexuality confrontations internally and with your partner. As alone as you think you are, you aren’t alone. And that can make a remarkable difference in your healing. It’s ok to lean on friends and family. Just ask. We’ll be there and help spread and share the burden. It might be then you recognize the shift in identity and loss. You pray it’s temporary and that when it’s done and you’ve made it, the value you and your choices bring to this world matter. You can see things better. You recognize what’s worthy.
One friend explained to me that a schedule was made by a handful of friends to help her directly, but also keep her household normalized. They took shifts for walking the dog, taking her to chemo, setting up dinners, visiting, cleaning her, letting her feel worried and depressed. Anxiety can’t be tamed. Bur offering up hope at all times. How lucky she was to have such hands-on good friends. A strong loving husband. A great army. They dubbed themselves Rachel’s Itty Bitty Pity Community.
Another was just going through a divorce when her cancer was discovered. What timing! Her kids were going off to college or finishing their senior year of high school. Tensions and bad news flooded that home. And, again, this made her slow down and make sane decisions on what to do and what mattered. It helped her and her children grow even closer. A new strength was woven from these strands that could have served to split them. Elaine chose to depend on her son and daughter and her sister as her only community. We friends showed up with meals and a brief visit but that was all she’d have. Her journey was difficult. She has a congenital spine problem and is also very thin. Getting meds right and lining her body up for reconstructive surgery took many many attempts. That’s a woman who chooses to live full bore and well. And she does. Again, she refused to have this define or discourage her. She was beautiful before, but now she beams it from inner strength. What do they say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Exactly. Those two friends had bilateral mastectomies to further insure a longer safer life. They were in their 40’s and early 50’s when their decisions had to be made.
My friend Rena was in her late 70’s when she discovered her lump. She taught me a lot. Cool under pressure. For her, she made us think of it as a ‘hangnailectomy’. Yes, there’s a lump. Yes, it’s breast cancer. Yes, her breast must be removed. Yes, there’s chemo. She got the diagnosis, the campaign information, the prognosis-and then returned to the mahjong table. She had hard decisions. There was never a moment when she thought of having reconstructive surgery. “I’m old, and happily married to my old man. We agree, I don’t have to go through all that surgery again. I am whole and healthy and fine.” She’s flat and fabulous bur can wear a prothesis. Again. She does not dwell on it at all. These diagnoses are no longer impending death and horror sentences. No identification, no self-pity, no if only.
Breast Cancer Awareness is a way of life for families and survivors and the ones who unfortunately will hear the diagnosis later. Take careful inventory. But remember, it’s merely a way of life and not necessarily the grim reaper knocking at your door. You don’t have to campaign, run marathons, bicycle or raise gazillions. Those are very good things to do, but if it’s your turn to survive, that’s all and everything you have to do. Like my friends, don’t wear the scars and scares as a skin, an identity. It’s more part of the fabric of who you ever were. And that’s a thing of beauty.