Learning to Live With Loss As a Result of Breast Cancer

In a world where cancer means loss, can letting go bring peace and joy?

With metastatic cancer, the losses can feel so enormous that it isn’t possible to think about them for longer than the few seconds they cross my mind. These thoughts cross my mind for a few seconds a hundred times a day just means they are always there but too fleeting to be examined. The losses stack up behind me in a pile and they stretch out in front of me in a line that comes to an abrupt end.

I never thought about loss before my diagnosis.

Loss. Loss. The shadow. Always there. Always hanging on, attached even during moments of joy. Over a year ago, a radiologist had the nerve to say “It’s probably cancer. Come in for a biopsy tomorrow.”

At least I now put a name to euphoria as well. Maybe before I was just too busy to really pay attention to my life. I will never know that kind of freedom again.

For me, the losses started small. I lost my choice on whether or not I could get another job. Because there was a suspicious spot on scans of my ovaries, I lost my ovaries and fallopian tubes (though there was no cancer there, phew). Because there were spots on the scans of my lungs, I lost my ability to tell myself fear would never do me in — the lung biopsy (cancer confirmed) remains terrifying in my memory.

Luckily, the mind actually is a wonderful thing and I’ve also lost the strongest emotions associated with that surgery. I lost my ease in wearing most of my clothes — everything I owned showed the hideous port placed in my chest. But then I lost the port due to blood clots and found myself with a red, unhappy scar. My kids say the scar doesn’t matter, but it has an uncanny ability to draw attention to itself.

I lost my hair. I lost my desire to eat. I lost 52 grams of one breast. I lost enough energy that getting into bed at night was a reward so powerful it is hard to remember anything feeling that good pre-chemotherapy. I lost my daughter to college. I lost friends who just don’t know what to say or maybe are kind of like me and grow tired of worrying about someone who’s forever ill.

I lost the certainty that I would be alive to see my fun-loving but serious son graduate from high school, my daughters find love, joy, success and adventure, my grandchildren be born, my time with my husband — especially my hopes that one day I’d convince him he wants to live by the ocean.

I think about these things. I hold them in front of my face like carrots for a tired, scarred horse. I hold them there, so they float just out of reach, trying to tear apart from that shadow. Can you see them too? Metastatic cancer means loss. The loss of my long life, even though I’ve done, mostly, what I was supposed to do to remain healthy.

If cancer means loss, is it possible it also means the opposite? It’s not a gift — I’m not going to fool myself. I wouldn’t call it a "journey" or a "battle." It’s just a fact. But it has meant that I get joy from watching a bird fly over a marsh, wonder from seeing a beautiful painting for the first time and unexpected love from strangers and friends.

How should I live with the certainty of continued loss amid the beauty of life? I am slowly finding that the answer is to also lose control; to even lose the desire for control. I think I can do it.