My pre-cancer self knew nothing of the disease. I stumbled through the four and a half months it took to get a diagnosis like a kindergartener in a graduate course.
At six and a half months in, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. By then, my bright red, hip-to-hip scar, missing nipple and asymmetrical breasts gave me a pretty good handle on cancer’s physical effects.
Getting my head around the emotional consequences was infinitely harder.
Looking back, it’s not like I didn’t feel anything. I was miserable, fatigued, lonely, stressed, angry and overwhelmed. But, unlike physical scars, the severity of those wounds wasn’t obvious when I looked in the mirror.
I had no idea then that recuperating from the emotional devastation of cancer was going to be even harder than recuperating from the physical damage.
In fact, people I trusted told me the exact opposite. As soon as I got home from the hospital, friends and family expressed relief that “the worst is over” and returned to their regularly scheduled lives. A cancer survivor I knew and one of my doctors assured me that cancer would take a year of my life and then “it would be over.”
On the one-year anniversary of that first frightening mammogram, I was nowhere near over cancer and hit a new emotional low. Luckily, I was seeing an oncology therapist. She pointed out the futility of trying to conform to a set end date and empowered me to believe in my right to experience cancer in my own way, at my own pace.
With her help, I learned how to cope with the pressure to be over cancer:
1.Focus on Support: When we’re sick, we go to a doctor. It shouldn’t be any different when we’re emotionally traumatized. I had no clue how to get out from under my misery, fatigue, loneliness and anger when I started seeing my therapist. Working with her helped me slowly face and dissect the pain behind my emotions and get to a better place.
2.Focus on Healing: As a five-year survivor, I can honestly say I’m not over cancer and probably never will be. I have, however, healed to a great extent and am much less emotionally distraught than I was during my dark days.
3.Focus on Connecting: Talking with other patients and survivors let me know my emotional struggles were normal and I wasn’t alone. It may be a club no one wants to join but, once you’re in, belonging connects you to others who are uniquely qualified to provide understanding and validation.
A pivotal moment of healing came a few months after my surgery when my husband and I were invited to dinner by friends. I balked because I wasn’t over cancer and was trying to hide it by telling people I was fine. I was exhausted and sick of lying, but afraid to let others in on how hard cancer hit me emotionally.
My husband’s suggestion was simple, “Tell the truth.”
When our friends asked how I was doing, I answered honestly and was shocked at the relief I felt. Better yet, the trust I put in them was rewarded with empathy and compassion and I was able to go on with the evening feeling heard.
Dealing with the pressure to be over cancer isn’t easy, and it’s not something I could have ever done alone. It takes work, time, and a great deal of support.
Do you experience pressure to be over cancer? If you do, do you find that pressure difficult to deal with and what do you do to cope with it?
I'm a four-year survivor, Stage 3a breast cancer and lymph node involvement. Even after four years of being "over it," it's hard for me to type this because my eyes are welling up with tears. I feel well (albeit the weight gain), and I feel strong because of what I have gone through and come out the other side -- healthy (a relative term), and mostly very grateful -- for life, for the care I received, and for the support, too. I worry a good bit about it coming back, but I try not to dwell on that. It has changed my life, no doubt, and my overall outlook on just about everything. It's really hard to deal sometimes with the mundane. every day "problems" everyone seems to have...I listen but somehow I just can't relate any longer. Life's everyday struggles seem so trite. Shame on me, I suppose, but I feel like part of me is just "waiting" until cancer visits again. I'm doing all I can to keep it away but that thought never leaves me. So...life after cancer and all the treatment that kept me alive and going was a wonderful gift, but my life isn't at all like it used to be. Not even close. But -- I'm thankful for every day.
I love that you're ready to tell everyone how you really feel, Josie. It takes a lot of courage to be honest and allow our loved ones to be there for us in our vulnerability. There's no reason to struggle alone and I'm glad you're open to getting support.
Karen, I wish you and your daughter all the best as you continue to deal with cancer. I've met amazing people too as a result of cancer and fully agree that it's the silver lining of an otherwise horrendous situation. Take care.
When I was waking up from my first breast cancer surgery my mom told me the surgeon had gotten it all so I can now put it behind me. Really? A cancer diagnosis is an emotional earthquake. I am on my 3rd major cancer (breast on both sides then follicular hon-hodgki's lymphoma which has no cure but a relatively long life span). I think it is like grief, the periods of intense emotion get further and further apart and when you in the the midst of them the intensity doesn't last as long the further along you are… but you are never "over it"… you learn to "live with it". Then there are added stresses - in my case finances, lost my job over this and my EEOC complaint is still pending, COBRA long gone, this state did not expand medicaid… which can increase the panic when the fear, anxiety, grief…whatever… when I am in one of those "after shock" earthquake days… I now live in someone's basement (better than my car which was the only other choice), I rely on a gofundme to pay for insurance (does not have enough funding - somehow I need to figure out how to get publicity), and I worry about what I will do if the lymphoma comes back because I won't be able to afford to treat it.
I also found that most people don't want to hear about it. They are uncomfortable, don't know what to say, presume that so far out you are "over it"… Good friends maybe but there is also compassion fatigue. So mostly I don't usually discuss my problems, my fears… I think it is a fine line to tell the truth but then not wear people out with the truth. Some things you just don't understand until you have been there done that have the t-shirt.