All women know October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, right? Well, maybe. Last year, I must admit, I didn’t think about it too much. Having no close friends or relatives with breast cancer, it seemed the type of thing that happened to others. So the pink ribbon was a nice gesture to recognize other women stricken by the disease, but beyond that…
This year I don’t need any special event to remind me, this year I am a breast cancer patient myself.
So many things have happened in the past months, I don’t recognize the person I was last October. I honestly can’t remember what it felt like back then. It’s like any mother will tell you, once you have kids, you are unable to remember what the carefree days before motherhood were like. Well, nine months after my diagnosis, I have forgotten what it is not to worry about my health. I know I will never go back to my previous life, which was interrupted by the most unexpected news after a regular check up.
SHOCKED BY THE DIAGNOSIS
I responded in anger to the tactless gynecologist who asked if I had come to her practice by myself and then blurted out the news anyway. I had an aggressive type of breast cancer and should prepare myself for surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she said. How on earth do you prepare for that? To this day I don’t know the answer. Guilt was my next feeling, which is common among cancer patients. Had I done something to provoke this, I wondered. Other than being a woman, which is a major risk factor, I couldn’t blame my lifestyle: I eat a healthy diet; I am not overweight; and granted I don’t exercise as much as I should, but as a divorced mother of two young girls, my day is active enough!
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Looking back, I see it was a roller coaster from that point on. If I was in low spirits, the doctor’s reassurance was quick to lift me up again. I barely had time to consider the possibility of cancer having already spread elsewhere when, thankfully, that was ruled out by a series of screening tests, MRIs, CT and bone scans. After surgery, due to lack of space in other areas of the hospital, I spent two days in the maternity ward, surrounded by crying newborns. My friends, who kept me company throughout my stay, joked constantly about this. Three very long weeks of recovery at home followed. My mood took a nosedive, until I received some good news: the cancer hadn’t reached the lymph nodes, which meant there was a very good chance it hadn’t spread beyond the breast. On the flip side, the pathology report confirmed my breast cancer wasn’t hormone related, meaning it could only be treated with chemo and radiation therapy.
THE DREADED SIDE EFFECTS
Chemotherapy can be scarier than cancer itself, I once read a cancer patient admit. Now that it’s over, I can say it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The typical side effects we all think about, nausea and vomiting, were contained by medications. Other reactions to chemo, which I knew nothing about, have been tougher to bear: mouth sores, changes in taste, loss of sensitivity in hands and feet, weakness in the legs, and general aches and pains that grip your whole body for a couple of days after each chemo cycle. I never knew my fingernails could hurt, but they do; they hurt so much I can’t scratch myself or open a can of soda, let alone chop vegetables for dinner when that happens.
While temporary side effects are uncomfortable, what I really fear is the long-term damage. Chemo brain, a cognitive impairment brought on by the drugs used to combat cancer, can linger for months or become persistent. It feels like your brain is unable to keep up with the rest of you, and thoughts are difficult to process. This “brain fog” has been very disruptive and still troubles me. Neuropathy, nerve damage to hands and feet, is still noticeable, with a tingling feeling that comes and goes. And I am a clear candidate for premature menopause, which now seems the least of my worries.
During treatment, I fell into a routine consisting of a bad week, when I received my chemo cycle, followed by a not-so-good week, and then a practically normal one before it all started again. Life slowed down and I focused on the basics, like taking care of my two girls, ages 9 and 4, who incidentally remain unaware of most of what I’m going through. They know I had surgery and couldn’t use my left arm for a while; and they know I was taking some medication that made it necessary to stay out of the sun this summer. Period. I know honesty is the best policy, but I didn’t want my eldest worrying about me. The youngest is too young to understand.
Now, halfway through radiation therapy, I try not to think about long-term damage to my lungs and heart, which is always a possibility. Surprisingly, I have learned by now that I would rather be undergoing some kind of treatment than be left alone by the doctors, however strange this may sound. If ending chemotherapy is an unsettling experience that leaves you out on your own, finishing radiation brings on the threat of having cancer cells running rampant in your body. All cancer patients have these thoughts, I am told, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
HOW TO STAY POSITIVE
How do I cope? I try not to think about it. As simple as this may sound, as hard as it actually is. This is how I manage to live one day at a time. I have learned not to anticipate events, not to think ahead. It is a very conscious effort to stay positive. It’s not easy to achieve, especially at night, when my imagination tends to run wild. I am content with my life right now, still discovering what the new “normal” is going to be. I am determined not to allow the knowledge of what may happen in the future rob me of my present. This control over my mind is one of my greater achievements as a breast cancer patient. I have come to appreciate the little things every day offers: being able to play with and take care of my kids, spending time with friends, sitting outside on a nice day (in the shade of course!).
This being said, I must admit I miss my hair…all of it! On my head, which is just starting to grow back ever so slowly; and even on my body; hair I intend to pluck, shave or wax as soon as it grows back! I can’t wait to lose my wig, my best ally all these months while I pretended everything was normal, for my kids’ sake. A bit ungrateful of me I suppose, but hey, nobody is perfect!