If you’re connected to me at all – via Facebook, Twitter, or through this blog – you know by now that I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in July. The experience has been so eye-opening. Even though cancer has touched my family more than a few times in my lifetime, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t truly understand how cancer affects a person until it happened to me.
One in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in the their lifetime. So whether you are a caregiver, a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or an acquaintance of someone with cancer, here are five things only someone with breast cancer would know (and now you do, too):
Cancer takes time – lots of it.
The timeline for a cancer diagnosis and treatment is a long one. For simpler cases like mine, cancer occupies ~6 months of your life. For more serious or complex cases, cancer can occupy upwards of a year or two. So for many of us, “having cancer” isn’t a temporary condition or a bump in the road. It *is* the road – for a long, long time.
I am a little over two months into this cancer journey and even now I don’t have a clear idea of my treatment plan. This is how the cancer timeline works. There are tests, then waiting for results, and then formulating the next step in the plan. I had surgery 10 days ago and now I am in the waiting phase. Once I have pathology on what was removed, then I can work with my oncologist on a treatment plan. There are no shortcuts. There is no way to speed things up.
Throughout this timeline, there are appointments to attend. Diagnostics, biopsies, pre-op, surgical planning, post-op, oncology, etc. If radiation becomes my treatment path, then I will need to go everyday, 5 days a week, for three to six weeks. Every. Day. Cancer literally takes a lot of time. As a result, I have to re-prioritize everything in life and returning phone calls or vacuuming the dog hair from the hallway may not make the cut. I don’t have time to explain how I prioritized what I did. Just deal with it. (Please.)
Breast cancer is a deeply personal, solitary journey.
Breast cancer creates a “new normal” in life. Breast cancer made me reassess my mortality, my body image, and my attitudes about people, health, and where I am in my life. Could I live the rest of my life with one breast? Or no breasts? What happens if I am one of the 30% of cases whose breast cancer returns as metastatic breast cancer – do I fight, or do I give up? No one can answer those questions for me.
Cancer impacts everything in ways that can’t always be explained to someone else. I know I have people who love me and who support me. I know that there are people in my life who would drop everything if I called and said I needed them right this minute. Here’s the thing: There are aspects of the cancer experience that can’t be articulated. There are fears and pain and doubt and a whole ball of other emotions that aren’t anyone else’s burden to bear. It is mine and mine alone.
I don’t know what I need until I need it.
The phrase I hear most often is “If you need anything, let me know” or “don’t hesitate to ask!” I know that’s just the other person being nice, but cancer doesn’t leave room for pleasantries. Either step forward or step back, but don’t leave it up to the person who has been handed a cancer diagnosis to remember to ask you for comfort. Be human, or don’t be.
I don’t always want to hear a cancer story.
As I have written before, it seems like your health is everyone’s business once it’s known that you have cancer. I don’t mind people asking questions, even people whom I’ve just met. But I’m still amazed at how comfortable people are at asking really personal questions about my boobs. I take the tack that answering someone’s questions will hopefully teach them about breast cancer and about the experience of having breast cancer.
That being said, I don’t always want to hear a cancer story. I’m sad that there are so many cancer stories to tell, but telling me about a friend of a friend who went in for a back ache only to find out they have stage 4 cancer is not the way to connect with me. Hearing those stories usually make me feel worse about my situation, even if the story has a good outcome. I already see cancer everywhere I look. There’s no need to point it out some more.
My problems do not eclipse your problems.
Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I win the “who is having the worst day” contest every single day. I want to hear about the good things that are happening in your life and I want to commiserate about the lousy stuff, like the commute or the workload or the office politics. I’m still living life just like you; just living it with cancer.