A cancer diagnosis can evoke many emotions. It may, indeed, be too much to grasp.
Ellen was a teacher, drug/alcohol counselor and school counselor for 32 years. Always being fairly “unique,” she was diagnosed with a unique form of breast cancer – one tumor followed by two more malignant tumors – in 2007. Ellen and her husband, although native New Yorkers, have lived in Seattle for 41 years. They have two grown children, two grandchildren and two standard poodles.
I didn’t cry. Well, once I did.
It began the summer of 2007 when I felt the tiniest lump in my right breast. It felt more like a pebble than a lump. I thought it would magically disappear in the same way it magically appeared. But it didn’t. I decided to make an appointment with my gynecologist to get it checked out. It was reminiscent of a tiny lump I had in the year 2000. After it was biopsied, it turned out to be a benign mass. But this time, my gynecologist seemed concerned as she examined me. She ordered another mammogram. My last one didn’t show anything out of the ordinary except that my breasts were dense. An ultrasound was scheduled immediately after the mammogram, which enabled a closer view of dense breasts. I went to the appointment alone since my husband had a business trip scheduled. I was fine about it as this was merely a standard procedure.
I didn’t cry. Why would I?
During the ultrasound, the technician called in the radiologist. This surprised me. I thought of radiologists the same way I thought of the wizard in “The Wizard of OZ” — behind the curtain doing their thing by reading the report. They didn’t actually make appearances. This one did. He appeared without an introduction; all he did is stare at the monitor under his black rimmed glasses. No one talked. I’m not sure I was even breathing. I looked at him and asked him what it could be. He said he wasn’t sure but it could be cancer. Just like that. He didn’t look at me. It was as if he said could be cloudy with a chance of rain.
My breath was shallow, but I didn’t cry. I simply got dressed and drove home. Those words resonated in my brain, but I tried to block them out with loud music. Once home, I was greeted by my two standard poodles. They followed me up the stairs to the bedroom. Slowly, I changed out my clothes and into the cozy, flannel Victoria Secret pajamas my children got for me years ago. I could fit two of me in them. My poodles and I hopped into bed together. I pulled the covers over me and I cried. Hard. For the first and last time.
Unlike my former biopsy, this one revealed an infiltrating ductal carcinoma. Not only could it be cancer, it most definitely was. My husband and I tried to grasp the news. He hugged me and said, “We’ll get through this.” “I know.” I responded, although I wasn’t sure who I was reassuring.
I’m not the first person to have breast cancer. After a lumpectomy, an MRI was arranged. It should have happened the other way around, but this is how it played out. The MRI disclosed two other “highly suspicious regions.” Those regions turned out to be two more malignant tumors. Overwhelmed by the information of having three tumors, I started to drift away. A flurry of doctor’s appointments came next, before making a decision about the best treatment plan. I voted for the full meal deal consisting of a bilateral mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy, reconstruction and five years of hormone therapy. Can’t mess around …
I began to slip away even more. I suppose in psychological terms, it would be described as dissociating. I simply focused on what I needed to. I needed to schedule a surgery date and become educated about chemotherapy. I needed to decide if I would continue working full time as a high school counselor or take a leave of absence. The night before my mastectomy in October, friends gathered together to wish me well. It was so beautiful that I almost cried. Then my husband took me out for a lovely dinner. The next day, he and my daughter sat together as I was operated on. No tears were shed. At least, not by me.
The first time I saw myself without my bandages, I gasped. As I stared in the mirror, it was as if I was staring at someone other than me. I remained alone in the bathroom for a long time, but still, I didn’t cry. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel. My feelings were muted. It’s as if I lived in a world without color. I felt and welcomed the undying love of my husband who got me through each day. I felt the love of my children who were there for me. I felt the love my mother, who as able to “mother” me long distance in a way she never could before. I felt so touched by the countless number of friends, neighbors, co-workers and parents of students who showered me with gifts of food, flowers, notes and comfort. I felt sad about the one or two friends who simply couldn’t show up. I felt annoyed when people said things to me without thinking — like telling me about people they knew who died from breast cancer, or that they would never have their breasts removed. I felt grief when my hair slowly started to fall out.
I felt discouraged when I returned to work after my surgery. As a high school counselor, I had a very demanding job. However, my husband, oncologist and I believed working part time would be good for me. It would help me to define myself as not merely a “cancer patient.” The administration was to hire someone to pick up the other part of my job, but this never happened until the very end of the year. Even the teachers’ union became involved on my behalf. Essentially, I was working part time and being responsible for a full-time job while going through chemotherapy. If nothing else made me want to cry, this did. Or scream. If there is such a thing as life-threatening fatigue, I had it.
Every part of me cried out — my bones, my pores, my finger nails. Jane, my chemo nurse, was a gentle soul who could read me so well. She noticed how detached I was and suggested I see a therapist or go to a support group. Being a therapist myself, of course I believe in therapy and support groups. Only not this time. Not for me. I’m not going to be forced to talk — and cry. After work, I would drag myself home and go to my safe place — under the covers. Wave after wave of exhaustion, nausea and depression would overcome me. But I was stoic. I simply would not or could not cry. My husband said my eyes were vacant. That’s because no one was there.
Often times I would forget. I couldn’t recall information. It was as if all my mental files were deleted. I suppose people refer to it as “chemo brain.” It was simply darkness. Each day I walked for 30 miles. Oh, I mean 30 minutes, which my doctor ordered. It felt like 30 miles. Three times a week I did yoga. This was probably the best and worst thing I did for myself. I went through traumatic spinal fusion surgery as a child, which involved being in a body cast flat on my back for six months. I was always self-conscious about my curvature of the spine. When I went to yoga, I benefited from the stretching, balance, breathing and meditation. But, looking around the room and watching what seemed like every woman moving gracefully with their perfect backs, full head of hair and real breasts had me feeling sorry for myself. Yet, I did what I could, and I stayed on the mat. People would remark about my strength. My plastic smile clearly stated, “Do I have a choice?” Even after chemotherapy ended, the combination of the cumulative effects of chemo and the side effects of hormone therapy kept me feeling quite washed out. Thankfully, I was able to transfer to a real part-time counseling position at a middle school the following year, where the demands were less. Since I was still healing and going through reconstruction surgery, this was a blessing.
Life became one of tentative gratitude. Those who have been touched by cancer will understand what that means. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t cry. Perhaps I felt I’d never stop.
Postscript: It has been nine years since my diagnosis. I stand in solidarity for all who have fought the battle — in tribute and in memory. When I think of loved ones I have walked the walk with, or who I have lost to cancer, something comes over me. It is then when I begin to cry.