Today is August 3, 2014. It has been 26 days since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a Tuesday night when I got the call. I was grilling salmon outside when my cell phone rang. It was my doctor’s office and they were calling at least a day earlier than I had expected. My biopsy had happened a few days earlier and I was told it would be almost a week before I would know any results.
The call was short. Essentially, the message was “you have cancer and this is the type and size” and then, before I knew it, the call was over. And my husband and I were left alone with a cold dinner and the cancer. It was hanging in the air like a bad word cloud. CANCER. Cancer had entered our home and our life, and it was here to stay – at least for a while.
Fear and breast cancer go hand-in-hand. Medical professionals who deal with cancer know how to mitigate the disease and the side effects of treatment, but they don’t always know how to mitigate your fears. As a newly-minted breast cancer patient, I’ve tried not to panic at words like mastectomy and chemo. Having cancer means you can’t shy away from the things that scare you, especially since the thing that scares you is in your body.
I’ve heard from many women who are going through or have gone through breast cancer and I’ve been told that I am currently sitting in the worst part of the process – the waiting between tests and tests results, and the waiting for a final treatment plan. Waiting is the worst part because the fears begin to pile up. The scary cancer monster in my head goes into overdrive.
Breast cancer makes everyone around me fearful as well. People don’t know what to say or do. I’ve read countless articles counseling people on what to say to someone with cancer. I don’t fully agree with any of them. The best advice? In short: don’t lie. Cancer doesn’t make me blind or unable to read your reaction to seeing me. I see the look of relief in people’s eyes when they see me and mentally assess that I still look okay, that I still have energy, or that I can still smile and laugh. It’s okay to acknowledge that I don’t look like I have cancer. That will change soon, but for now that statement is still true.
If anything, I am a mirror to those around me. I see the fears reflected in my friends who are my age, who can’t believe that I’m not yet 40 but I have cancer. Could that happen to them soon? I see the the fears reflected in my sister, who still imagines me as a little kid who needs to be wrangled and taken care of. How can my baby sister have cancer? And I see the fears reflected in my husband, who always imagined we would grow old together and retire in a warm climate outside the Northeast (Hawaii, not Florida). Will we still get a chance to do that?
Even after someone is declared cancer-free, there is still the fear of recurrence. The women in my online support groups all talk about that fear. It’s yet another cloud following you around for the rest of your life. Any ache or pain can cause panic and trigger the fear that the cancer has returned.
I am not scared of many things. I lost both of my parents before I turned 29. I have seen death and am not afraid of it. I was scared of heights, so I climbed a 60-foot tower and went zip-lining. I didn’t know how to ride a bike, so I learned at the age of 32. No, I am not scared of many things.
“Fears are the stories we tell ourselves.” That is an unattributed quote I saw recently and I really wish I knew who said it, because it is so true. Fear and breast cancer are still one entity to me right now. I’m working on teasing those two apart; to recognize where one ends and the other begins. One is very real and the other is just a story. I am unraveling that – one strand at a time.
Read my continuing posts about breast cancer.