It's My Cancer and I'll Cry If I Want To


Tears are a normal part of the cancer struggle. Is hiding them isolating you and making it harder to get the support you deserve?

"[W]e need never be ashamed of our tears ..." - Charles Dickens

One of the things I've come to accept about myself is that I cry easily.

What hasn’t come easily is crying in front of other people.

During the diagnostic and treatment phases of cancer, I usually clamped down my tears. As a mother, I felt I had to be strong for my children. As a wife, I saw my husband's pain and, feeling guilty for causing it, didn't want to cause more. As a daughter, sister and friend, I didn't want to worry anyone and tried to keep things positive.

Although I felt no such obligations to my doctors, I hid tears from them too. When my breast surgeon told me I needed a mastectomy, I didn’t let myself lose it until I made it out of her office and onto the elevator. When my plastic surgeon needed before photographs, requiring me to stand there practically naked while a nurse took pictures, I bit my lip to keep from crying. Time after time during testing, I'd say as little as possible to the technician, struggling to just get through it without making a scene.

Tears reveal truth and, all too often, I wasn’t able to go there. Instead, I’d quietly walk away and find somewhere safe to cry in private. Why did I hide? As much as I wanted to be strong, it wasn’t about that entirely. Mostly, I think I was overwhelmed with emotions and unable to explain them. How could I make others understand all the emotions I was feeling when I couldn’t fully understand them myself?

I cried a lot during the six and a half months from my 'suspicious' mammogram to my mastectomy, but I did my best to cover my tracks. Two days after my mastectomy, that all ended. That morning, I woke up in a hospital bed with an amputated breast, hip-to-hip incision, bandages, catheter and drains.

With the comforting fog of surgical drugs finally out of my system, there was only the cold, hard reality and I gave in to a breakdown. Nurses came from everywhere to comfort me and I let them. I was no longer hiding. Instead, I outed myself completely as someone who had hit the wall and needed whatever help I could get to put myself back together.

Talk about a watershed moment.

There was no hiding the depth of my emotions anymore and my nurse navigator encouraged me to start therapy. I met a therapist once a week for a year and I cried through at least 95 percent of our time together. In fact, when I asked her why she thought I was making progress when all I did was talk and cry, her answer surprised me.

It seems that committing to toughing it out to work through the pain and tears is what therapy is all about.

Since then, I’m better at embracing vulnerability and the tears it evokes. I now work as a patient educator with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project. Meeting with young doctors, medical students and student nurses, I tell my story and answer questions about living with cancer as a whole person.

Now when I tear up, which happens every time I talk about cancer and my husband and children, I make no effort whatsoever to hide it.

Tears are an honest reaction to cancer. Over the years, I’ve learned that hiding them only made my struggle harder and denied others the chance to recognize my suffering and be supportive.

Do you hide your tears from family, friends and medical professionals? If not, was it hard to open up and show vulnerability? Let’s talk about it in the discussion group.

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