Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Breast cancer and melanoma survivor reflects on recovering from her cancer experiences.
Sometimes you get to a point where the worst is over, even if it is just that the scary unknown now became known, like after your first chemotherapy treatment. Still, it is difficult for me to recognize and appreciate the moments in time where it became true that the worst really was behind me. Cancer treatment and recovery is a gradual and spikey process. It is not a smooth steady curve.
After surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I was exhausted, fearful and foggy (chemo brain). I was also firmly entrenched and in residence in Cancerland. I frequently did self-checks for breast cancer's possible return and studied my skin in fear of a new melanoma. Due to improved genetic testing, I am currently recovering, years later, from the pain of a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I am still a work in progress there.
It is hard to give up residence in Cancerland. My ears prick up every time I hear cancer in the news or cancer among people around me. The PTSD and fear of recurrence will always be there to some degree. But, the worst is over. Things will get better only if my mind realizes that truth and lets things get better. Grief is normal, but don't get stuck.
My mom passed away one year ago today from metastatic breast cancer at age 84. I woke up in tears thinking about this anniversary. I was also in pain in the breast reconstruction area from moving too much landscape rock around yesterday. It is hard for me to recognize that the worst has already happened, and now the healing, physically and mentally, can move forward. It has been moving forward all along — since the day of each of my parents' deaths, and since the completion of each cancer diagnosis and treatment.
My task is to not get stuck in grief and in Cancerland. I will always have grief over the loss of my parents. Everyone does, and it will gradually get better. I will always have fear of recurrence, but I don't have to feed that fear. Though cliché, time does help heal wounds, especially if I stop poking at them!
It requires conscious effort to not form grief and pain habits. When I feel sad, I can mentally hug Mom and then try to redirect myself. When I feel post-mastectomy pain, I can remember that the worst is over and try to gently massage or exercise the areas where it hurts. I gently lean into the pain instead of tense everything up around it.
There is fear of returning back to the initial days right after my recent mastectomy-reconstruction surgery. There is fear of feeling that initial horrible pain and shock of learning about my cancers or my parents' deaths all over again. Those fears are barely at the conscious level of my mind; they are almost not a conscious thought. They threaten and peek out from the past —from traumas I have already survived.
The worst is over. It does not mean those events never happened. It does not mean that those events don't take their pound of flesh. It does not mean those events won't always be part of me. It does mean that I can choose to focus on the present sometimes and move forward. The worst is over in many ways and you too can seek to hold that knowledge in your heart.