The Numb Zone

October 28, 2019

Facing those drawn-out days between a breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy surgery.

It begins with that startling and intractable pronouncement: "You have cancer". I remember listening to those words and trying to understand their significance, but I had no reference point in my life with which to make sense of them. It seemed as though I was hearing a foreign language; and indeed I was.

I was suddenly communicating through a new vocabulary, with words like mastectomy, lymphedema, adjuvant therapy, biomarkers and neuropathy - all of them foretelling how my life was about to change. And after considering my future for a few fleeting seconds and wondering if I should laugh, cry, or curse out loud, I discovered a place of refuge that offered an emotional stillness that I would experience until I awakened from my sentinel node mastectomy surgery two weeks later: the Numb Zone.

Most men diagnosed with breast cancer have mastectomies to remove the cancer. Men don't usually have lumpectomies because their breasts are so small. By the time the tumor and the tissue around it have been removed, very little breast tissue is left. In a study published in 2015, looking at 1.2 million women, it was found that a total of 35.5% of them underwent mastectomy surgery. So regardless of what method you choose to treat breast cancer, a lot of women and men receive mastectomy surgery to remove as many cancer cells as possible.

There may not be a whole lot of decisions we need to make in the days after our diagnosis, but the complexity and long-term ramifications are, to put it bluntly, matters of life and death. We can rely on our physicians and surgeons to handle a large part of the choices that need to be made, but we owe it to ourselves to ask a lot of questions, and that includes questioning their choices too. Being in the Numb Zone doesn't help things a bit when it comes to mapping out our future and the remainder of our lives.

There is a lot to process in those early days, and when we feel as though the wind has been knocked out of our sails, it's not so easy to focus. Luckily, our brains have the extraordinary capacity to adapt to changing environments and sudden distressing news. Scientists call this "plasticity". Plasticity protects us from developing mental disorders as the result of stress and trauma. Researchers have found that stressful events re-program certain receptors in the emotional center of our brains known as the amygdala. Those receptors then determine how our brains, and the thoughts we have, react to the next traumatic event.

So this phenomenon that I noticed in myself, which I refer to as the Numb Zone, is not only real, but explainable. It felt to me like I was a gazelle in the jaws of a lion; limp and submissive. But I found a way out. I began to research male breast cancer and to ever-so-slowly find a few men who shared my predicament. More importantly, I began to talk about it and write about it.

Fortunately, things have changed dramatically in these last five years since my diagnosis and surgery. Social media and the internet can easily connect us to others who have "been there and done that" when it comes to breast cancer.

When the shock waves of cancer reverberate through our lives, going numb for a time isn't such a bad idea. We may need to take some days off to adjust to an altered way of living. And one thing is certain: it will be altered. So if and when you experience a blast of numbness as a result of the words "you have cancer", you may be better prepared for seeing it as it really is just your body and your brain finding a way to turn down the volume of the unfortunate news, while preparing you for some deep healing ahead.


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