Sitting in DFW airport waiting on my plane to Phoenix…I am picking up my granddaughter. Both of her parents are military and are not allowed to travel more than 100 miles from their base. So, I am her escort back home. COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life.
Change…my life has changed drastically since breast cancer.
I will never be the same woman I was before breast cancer. My life will never be as it was before. And longing for what was, will not make it return. Instead, I have slowly began to find my way to something different. When I think of myself and how it is now, I would say that I am an emerging spirit. My life after breast cancer is a journey of discovery about who I am now and who I will become tomorrow. I think that will never end, because everything that impacts me is viewed with renewed insight. The person I am now continues to evolve but will eternally, silently be guided by my experience with breast cancer.
Trying to describe this new life can be difficult. To me it’s a new awareness of life that translates to recognizing what is important to me, who is important to me and what I want to do with my life since I know that this disease may some day sneak through a back door and find a new nesting ground.
Any major life experience changes us. And breast cancer is most certainly a major experience physically, emotionally and spiritually. You do not look quite the same. You have a missing parts and new scars, which most people don’t see (unless you’re me and you’ve posted your new chest for all the world to see in the internet). What once was normal and routine becomes what we hope for but cannot necessarily count on. You will measure normal, differently. You have learned a great deal about your capacity for pain and the strength it takes to over come it, a long with courage, empathy and for love. You are certain to make some decisions and life choices differently than you would have before cancer. We grow through pain, when we are forced to do so. Your new you is a self that has expanded to hold these experiences. It is a self that will become comfortable, familiar, and very beloved in time.
I guess this cancer thing really brings to light a lot of stuff you aren’t prepared for in addition to the basic fear of dying. You are emotionally out of balance. And sometimes you just want to hold someone’s hand, close your eyes, and pray for a soft landing.
As silly as this may sound, the words you use are important. They are how you present and define yourself to the world. Survivor, Warrior, Pink Lady…eventually, you will find the word that fits best for you.
Since every woman’s cancer and every woman’s treatment is uniquely her own, no woman’s recovery will exactly parallel any other’s. The particular combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy that you had will to some some extent influence the course of your recovery.
Women who do not receive chemotherapy but whose treatment involves surgery, either with or without radiation and hormonal therapy-usually Tamoxifen-face a slightly different adjustment. Although they have been spared (to which I am one of those) the rigors of chemo, they have also had less time to adjust to the fact that they are breast cancer patients. Since chemo takes three to six months, you have time to adapt and process the strong feelings that accompany the diagnosis.
But women who do not have Chemo sometimes find that their family and friends have relatively little understanding of what they have experienced. Throughout the course of their treatment, any physical side effects or scars from surgery are hidden from the world. Since most women try hard to sustain their usual responsibilities and routines, it is easy for others to minimize the impact of the experience.
It is important to remember that the feelings about having breast cancer are completely different from the treatment. Any kind of breast cancer and any kind of treatment are bad enough. Some women glide through chemo, while other suffer tremendously. Same goes for hormonal therapy. I am the sufferer with hormonal therapy. Tamoxifen is literally kicking my ass, taking names, walking all over me! I am miserable 90% of the time. But I keep taking it to try and not have another reoccurrence.
I discovered that the return to robust physical health is slow. I expected to feel better immediately. Everyone else expected me to just jump out and be back to normal in no time. But normal now is so different than normal then. What the heck is normal, any way?
If you are like me, you focused on the physical aspects of recovery. And the psychological and life issues are coming at you full force. You have been physically mutated and chemically altered. It is completely normal, according to my Oncologists, and appropriate to feel depressed, anxious, and generally out of sync with friends and family. Their concerns may be trivial to you, and it can be hard to be sympathetic to their problems when you are worried about your own survival.
I am forever been changed, just as you have been by a breast cancer diagnosis. We will never get our old life back. We will, however, build a life that may someday be even better than the old one. We will feel like ourselves again: one morning we will wake up thinking, “I remember feeling this way.” We will find laughter, pleasure and joy, again. Many of us will just come to terms with this new normal, and some will believe that their lives are even fuller and more satisfying because their cancer taught them what is truly important.
This is not something that a newly diagnosed woman could ever believe, but you will indeed gradually find that it is true for you.