I bit into the crunchy sweet Fuji apple and a gasp of delight escaped my mouth.
I hadn't taken a bite of any raw fruit in four months since beginning chemo with a drug, aptly nick-named, The Red Devil. My stomach and the Red Devil didn't get along and due to serious digestive issues, I had to take a break from my favorite foods, raw fruits and vegetables and even my beloved coffee. The truth was, that while on the Red Devil, food seemed to be an alien object and it was hard to connect the items on my plate with any type of pleasurable activity. But yesterday, I had finished eight weeks of a different drug, Taxol, and to celebrate I had allowed myself the luxury of eating half of a raw apple. A bad idea, as the digestive problems returned within half an hour. But one worth the pleasure.
Four months earlier, right after a wonderful family reunion, I touched the underside of my breast with my finger. Why I don't know. I sat up abruptly and said to my husband, "I have a lump in my breast." He looked back at me, not comprehending. I repeated the words, "I have a lump in my breast" and slumped back in the armchair. This time it sunk in. The next day began a month of a dozen medical appointments, before beginning chemo. During this time, my emotions went haywire. The fear was very strong at first. I remember sobbing to my husband, "I don't want to die…" Those first few days an overwhelming feeling of helplessness flooded me. Despite being a psychotherapist who has helped countless clients strengthen their coping skills, I wasn't sure what to do to help myself cope with the knowledge that I had Stage 3 advanced breast cancer. My family stepped in with love and support and my older daughter, who had recently gone through a life-threatening cancer, served as my role model. She started by trying to teach me to relax with yoga. That didn't work. She didn't give up, but instead helped me work on positive affirmations, meditations, and an image of myself fully healed. I received books from well-meaning friends explaining everything that there is to know about cancer. This immediately led to increased anxiety.
I decided that I didn't want to know much about the cancer, but instead I wanted to focus on surrounding myself with love, support, humor and optimism. My younger daughter sent me daily positive affirmations, and my son sent me baby and animal videos to make me laugh and music videos to bring me joy. My husband happens to be a very optimistic person, and he kept me on track when I teared up from the pain and the prolonged discomfort. My daughter-in-law and son-in-law sent loving messages that warmed my heart. And my mother, siblings, two sisters-in-law and extended family gave me constant support. The difficult times often went along with the indignities of cancer. At first my total baldness caused me great embarrassment. My vulnerability was such that I cried the first time that I went out. The UPS worker comforted me. The bouts of daily diarrhea left me weak and discouraged. And at times, the pain and extreme weakness, made my 67-year-old body, feel like that of a 95-year-old. Throughout all this, my husband told me that I looked beautiful and never lost hope that all will be well. I only realized how hard it had been for him a few weeks ago when we went on a real outing, the first one since I got sick. We went to the plant nursery to buy pansies. On the way home, he said, "It really felt good to go somewhere other than the oncologist. "Wait", I answered, "we've also gone to get my blood drawn". "Same thing," he answered.
I'm still less than halfway through my treatment. I've already learned that getting a diagnosis of stage three, advanced breast cancer is very scary and brings many new challenges. However, with the support of my family and friends, I was able to begin to absorb my new reality and grow to accept it. Acceptance brought a desire to handle this chapter in my life in the best way that I could. And that meant, learning to laugh despite the cancer. Learning to go through my days at a much slower pace without being able to accomplish anything. Accepting my feelings no matter what, and realizing that I could also grow from this experience. Being surrounded by so much love. helped me stay focused on the gratitude that I feel for being alive in this day and age when there is a treatment for such a life-threatening illness, and to maintain hope that although I'm expected to need another year of treatment, I will survive this with gratitude in my heart and soul and with even stronger connections to my loved ones.