When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, all hell breaks loose inside.
Thoughts race, things feel unreal... and you know, somewhere deep inside you, that things will never be "normal" again. Nothing will be the same.
In 2008 my mother was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She was treated with a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. We thought she was fine. We assumed we were done with this cruel cancer business. But in 2010, a month before my wedding, my mother's cancer returned. In both her lungs.
I remember when she told me. We were on the phone. She had been having this cough for a while. She called and told me, that no, in fact she was not fine; that her X-ray had shown that she had two cancerous nodules in each lung. I do not remember what happened next but according to my husband I threw my cell phone across the room and began screaming as though I was being physically crushed by a cement wall. And that was a perfect description of how I felt.
I was so angry and horrified and terrified. All at the same time. I could barely breathe. It was a relief when the tears actually came because I thought I might explode from the mix of things I was feeling. I told myself to breathe, and the more I breathed the more the tears came.
Why? Why was this happening to us? Weren't we good people? Didn't we try to do the right thing? Hadn't we gone through this cancer thing already? As the second round of tests and then treatment began I could feel myself getting bitter. I could feel the resentment building up in me each time I entered our treatment center with my mom. I could feel it when I saw seemingly healthy mothers with their daughters. I could feel it when I thought about the prospect of losing my mother at a young age. I began to lose interest in my upcoming wedding, in my work and in my relationships. And on top of it, I felt guilty and ashamed for feeling what I was feeling. Wasn't I supposed to be strong? Wasn't I always the optimistic type? Where was my brave face? My Midwestern resolve? So on top of the feelings I had about my mom's cancer I was judging myself for having those feelings.
It was a very hard period for me. I felt like I couldn't talk to anyone about what was going on with me, and I realized that I needed to get some help. I needed to find someone who I could talk to. There are so many resources out there. I just needed to be ready to use them.
I began seeing a counselor who specialized in working with adult children who had a parent with cancer. I was also my mother's primary caregiver, which added to my feelings of resentment and fear. What if I was doing it "wrong?" Why was I the one who had to do this?
On my first session my counselor asked me how I was holding up. I immediately launched into what was going on with my mother. How her treatment was going, what her latest test results were, how she was coping with the side effects of chemo, etc. After I was done, my counselor looked at me and smiled. "What about you?"
Me? What about me?
Nobody had asked me that in a long time. "Oh, you know," I said, "I'm OK. All things considered."
My counselor smiled a gentle smile, and for the first time in a long time I felt safe. I knew from the look in her eyes that my counselor wasn't going to judge me. "To be honest," I said, holding back tears, "I'm not doing so well." And then I began to sob. I just let the tears come freely, I didn't wipe them away quickly as I had become accustomed to doing when I would think about my mom's cancer and this new world we were now a part of.
For a long time my counselor didn't say anything. She just let me cry and cry. And it felt like I cried forever. And it felt so good to just cry. To not try and stop myself from feeling my feelings. Or manage them. Or "fix" them.
Finally my counselor said, "It seems to me, you are doing just fine. You are exactly where you need to be."
That marked the beginning of a turning point for me. I decided to let myself off the hook when I noticed strong feelings coming up inside me as my mom and I went through her cancer journey together. I decided not to judge myself. And although they were never really easy, things became easier. Letting go of my guilt and shame created space for me to focus on the thing that really mattered.
The love I felt for my mother and the knowledge that yes, it was messy at times, but I really was doing pretty well.
Jen Bosworth is a writer and performer from Chicago. Her one woman show, "Why Not Me...Love, Cancer and Jack White" will make it's East Coast debut this August at The New York International Fringe Festival in NYC. Check out her website adamnnicelady.com for more information about Jen and "Why Not Me."