Things I Wish I Had Been Told When I Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2013. Since that time, I have received so much advice (some good and some just terrible) and met so many survivors. But I've learned a few things that I wish someone had told me from day one. Here's a few of them:
Your relationships are about to change. Every single one of them. Some will get stronger while others will disappear all together. You will not be able to predict which one will be which. No one will know what to say, which will lead some people to avoid you. Others will want to be there for you even if you want to be left alone. The people you expect to be there for you just might not be able to handle it for their own reasons. Try to forgive them because no one is taught how to handle a cancer diagnosis, and being bitter or angry at them won't help you recover. Those who can stick with you will, and the others can just kick rocks.
You will be determined to have more energy than you actually do. You will convince yourself that you are thinking straight, that you are handling this all so well, and that you don't need anyone. And you will be wrong. You will run out of fuel, sometimes when you need it the most. Your body will change first, and eventually drag your mind kicking and screaming with it. You will lose your mind, memory, sense of humor, and your sense of self. Don't worry, it will all come back, but you will be different. You will never be the same, no matter how much you want to be. Try to embrace the new you. Your old self may have been great, but your new self is a warrior, so therefore, even better.
Fear will be a part of your reality. Even if you are normally confident, strong, or seemingly invincible, at some point you will admit that you are scared. Cancer is extremely scary and incredibly confusing. And worse, it is filled with uncertainty. The not knowing what to expect or what is going to happen will feel worse than the disease itself. You will need lots of distractions. Music, mindless TV, work...whatever keeps your mind occupied. But no matter what, there will be a time where the fear is overwhelming. You will find having conversations, reading a book, watching a movie, everyday tasks becoming difficult, even impossible to do. You will eventually feel normal again, I promise. Until then, when you feel afraid, let yourself lean on those around you. Sob uncontrollably. Throw a fit. Scream until you are hoarse. Be vulnerable because you are vulnerable. There will come a time for being strong, but never admitting you are scared will cause anxiety to mount and interfere with your recovery. Apologize to those around you for the mood swings if you feel the need. The people that love you will understand.
Your loved ones will be just as scared, if not more scared, than you. They will be worrying as they smile in your face. They will want to make it all better but be unable to do so. They will mentally be preparing for you to die as they physically help you survive. They will be going through a process that you don't understand just as you are going through a process you hope they will never have to understand. Let them process in their own way. Forgive them when they don't understand, and forgive yourself for getting angry when they don't. Be patient when you can. Know that those who can will be there when you get to the other side and you will be able to laugh together again instead of cry.
The sooner you recognize that you might die, the sooner you can create a mentality to survive. There is a chance you might not make it. Just like there is a chance you will. Don't look at statistics because you are unique and what is happening inside you is unique to you. Your fight is yours alone and there are too many factors beyond your control that keeps you from making a comparison between yourself and someone else with breast cancer. People will tell you not to think about death, but you won't have a choice. Try as you might not to, you will think about it at some point after your diagnosis. Instead of avoiding it, come to terms with it. Calmly accept the possibility and accept what that would look like. Then, shift your thoughts and energy into believing that you won't die. You are going to beat this. Mentally focus on the fact that you are going to live and that will be more powerful than any treatment you will receive.
Your doctors and nurses will become your source of comfort. You will feel safe with them. If you do not feel safe with them you need to change your care provider immediately. You have no time to waste and this shouldn't be done on anyone's terms but yours. When you find the right caretakers, you will know immediately. Do not let insurance. money, or red tape prevent you from getting the treatment you deserve. This is your one shot and your body, so do what has to be done to find a way. If you can't do it yourself, give it to someone you trust in your life who can. The right doctors and nurses will spend time answering your questions. There will be no stupid questions to them. They won't do anything besides make you feel like you are the most important life that exists. They will never make you feel like they don't have things in control. They will be honest, even if it hurts you. They might even become friends. You might celebrate with them when you finish treatment or have a drink with them when you are cured. If you get upset at them during treatment, know that they'll forgive you. They get what you are going through and understand better than most how unimaginable it all is. They see it every day and still choose to come to work daily because they want to make the worst experience of your life more tolerable.
You will be an inspiration to others, which will feel weird. People you haven't spoken to since elementary school will reach out to you. Ex-boyfriends, former co-workers, even people you never wanted to speak to again will suddenly be interested in your life. The sudden interest in your life will be greater than it ever has been. There will be times when you wish they would all just leave you alone, but as hard as it may be, try to be grateful. Be appreciative of each gift and visit. There will be moments when despite all the attention, you will feel lonelier than you have ever felt in your life. Whether it's in a hospital room full of people, at home listening to voicemail, or in bed responding to all the texts and messages, you will find yourself feeling completely alone because no one really understands what it is like to be you in that moment. Take the opportunity to recognize your self-worth, to love yourself, to see yourself as others see you. Recognize how much love there is for you in this world and hold on to it. When someone calls you a bad ass for surviving, smile and say thank you, even if you don't feel worthy. Because living through all the treatment that comes along with fighting cancer is hard, so surviving does make you a bad ass, whether you like it or not.
Lastly, when you get to the other side, you will have a hard time accepting that you are actually on the other side. They will tell you the disease is gone. You and everyone around you will rejoice and expect life to return back to normal. But it won't. You will have a new normal. You will constantly wonder if it is coming back. Each new ache and pain will make you believe the cancer has returned. A headache will equal a brain tumor. A cough will make you question if you have lesions in your lung. Each time you get a scan or blood work ,you will worry about the results. We call it scanxiety. With each passing day and negative test result, that feeling will fade, but the cancer will always be a part of you. It will define how you see the world moving forward. You might even start to think of your life as BC and AC...before cancer and after cancer. Keep moving forward, and you will become more productive. Those who truly love you will come to terms with the new you. You will meet people who have also survived and understand where you are. You will let go of those people who don't get the new you, and you'll feel guilty for doing so. Move on because life is too short to waste time on people who can't accept change. The greatest gift cancer gives you is that you now understand how important it is to make the most out of every second of life because you don't know when it is going to change. Take what cancer gave you, find your purpose, and be fearless.