I work at an organization that helps young adults faced with a cancer diagnosis get through their journey. Because of my position, I hear about and see individuals get diagnosed with cancer every day. I hear their stories, in many ways I walk down that same road I walked down, but this time it is with them. At times that is challenging. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. The same emotions do appear. It is easy to fall back into that place of darkness and seclusion. But, at the same time, I can connect with these people in a way someone who has not faced cancer cannot and I find that to be invaluable in the work I do every day. I can tell them, “I know how you feel,” and really, really mean it. I can say, “I’ve been there,” and they are assured that I truly have. The kind of connection that makes between two people faced with similar challenges is what I believe the cancer community, in many ways, thrives on. It is what it is built upon. I don’t think it could operate any other way. This is because, at the end of the day, no one that has not gone through a doctor sitting them down and telling them that there is something inside their body that is trying to kill them, can understand, I mean truly understand what that person is going through. They haven’t received news that they have something that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year—something that takes mothers away from their children, that claims the lives of children, that does not discriminate, but rather goes after anyone it can—and because of this, they cannot truly understand what it is to fight cancer.
A funny thing happened the other night. I was getting ready for bed, winding down, and I realized something that stopped me in my tracks. Something had crept up on me and I was standing there, by my bed, and the most beautiful realization entered my head—I hadn’t thought about cancer in like 29 hours!! BUST OUT THE BAND PEOPLE! This is a freaking breakthrough!!!!!! This is monumental. This is acceptance-speech-worthy. I had done it. I had reached another step in the healing process.
Of course, I had thought about cancer in the abstract. In my line of work I am helping survivors every day, but I had not thought about my own cancer in like 29.25 hours.
When I first went back to work after my doctor essentially relieved me of fighting-cancer-duty, I was still a novice. I was just a young pup in cancer terms. Everything was still fresh, and as a result I worried about cancer and its aftermath every day—sometimes every minute (no exaggeration).
I have a friend at work that is a nine-year survivor and when I first started my job I found myself oddly envious of her achievement. In the cancer world—survivor years are the crème de la crème. They are so coveted you would do unspeakable things to get them. They mean you are OK in a much realer way than you feel you are. One day I was speaking with this survivor friend of mine about the fears and emotional torture survivorship can put you through and she said that eventually, there would be a day when I just didn’t think about what I had been through. I would go about my day thinking about things like the tasks I needed to get done, what I was going to have for lunch, and those cancer-crazy thoughts would not even enter my brain. I didn’t believe her. I believed, very strongly, that I would be a nut job forever.
Well, the verdict is still out on that, but I did achieve a cancer-free-mind for a day and it was simply remarkable. It took eight months since I finished treatment. But I did it. So, the next morning I woke up and thought, “OK I was able to accomplish that once. I am going to try it again.” This time it wasn’t so easy. You see, cancer has this way of playing crazy mind tricks on you. You think that if you do not give cancer enough credit it will somehow come for you. Like, if you aren’t scared out of your wits of it, it is comin’ for ya.
So, I approached the next day differently. Instead of just trying not to think about it, I actively gave myself permission to spend a day free of cancer-think. I thought, if I just took it one day at a time, if I just allowed myself a 24-hour reprieve that would be OK with the cancer gods. So I did just that! I embraced my free day and took full advantage of it. It felt great and I thought, “This is life. This is how I remember it. Just focusing on other things, not allowing fear to conquer, but rather embracing the ebb and flow of life.”
I do this every day now. I actively tell myself that I am not going to live in the past today. That today I am in the present. I am not going to live in fear, but rather I am going to give myself a break, focus on something else, just live.
Perhaps one of the reasons I have achieved these worry free days and feel more back to normal is because of something that happened a few weeks ago…I had my very last surgery over the holidays. It was a reconstructive surgery to essentially put the finishing touches on my breasts. (No, there is NOT a less creepy way to put it, I checked.) So, after 15 months everything is, at long last, back where it belongs from a physical standpoint. In the weeks leading up to my final surgery I did not find myself too concerned about it. I had become so used to feeling different about my body that I never really felt as though I would find complete peace with it again and I accepted that. That is a difficult thing to accept as a 29 year-old female still searching for a lot of missing variables in her life. But somehow I did.
I remember my surgeon telling me the same day he told me I had breast cancer what a mastectomy was. I honestly didn’t know. I had heard the word before, but I was completely ignorant to the whole process. I didn’t know the advances reconstructive surgery had made. I was unaware I would be made “as good as new.” But that is just what my surgeon assured me after he told me about my treatment plan—I would eventually have breasts again…nice ones! I write this part for my many survivor sisters out there that are just now receiving word that they have breast cancer. I write this to those who are just now trying to grapple with the concept of a mastectomy and what that means for their body image and their self image. I did not believe my surgeon when he told me I would be made as good as new one day. I did not believe him when he told me that one day I would look at myself in the mirror and like what I saw again when I took my shirt off.
I was very lucky to have one of the most amazing plastic surgeons in my corner. He has told me, “I am just a man. I don’t have a magic wand.” But I am convinced he does because he is extraordinarily good at what he does. He is simply the best. The day after my most recent surgery my mom and I decided to take off the bandages and see what it all looked like under there. I was convinced my body would require my mind to, once again, adjust. But, when I took off the bandages and stood there in front of the mirror, over a year after I had essentially said goodbye to my old body the night before my mastectomy, I sat there in disbelief. Not only was I tolerant with what I saw, I liked what I saw. I was completely blown away.
This blog post is not to toot my own horn about how great I look. (OK maybe it is a little.) But the main goal of this post is to tell other women facing breast cancer that are kicking off their cancer journey with a mastectomy—you will like your body again. It took me awhile and several surgeries, but I like my body, no I love it for getting me through cancer, and I love what I look like again at long last. The scars have faded and as I said in my very first blog post, all the ladies beside me in assisted living someday are going to be so jealous of my extraordinarily perky breasts.
So, for any of you reading this facing your own journey, I have been there. Right where you are. Sad about the surgery, but knowing it is necessary to save your life. And, I guess, my point is to say that it does get better. The scars heal, the implants go in, and eventually you will find yourself getting ready for bed and realize cancer didn’t even enter your mind today and you will be grateful knowing that, and stronger because of what you have been through, and you will be, at long last, as good as new.