Breast Cancer: Back to School… Back to Life
As summer’s heat starts to wane and September brings the promise of cooler days and new beginnings, the vast majority of women with breast cancer aren’t getting ready to go back to school. But that doesn’t mean we can’t anticipate a fresh start: a turn away from illness and death, back towards life.
Breast cancer treatment feels like en endless slog through a muddy, ugly landscape. No scenic views; no picnics in grassy meadows; just one foot in front of the other, day after day after day.
And when you get to the end: to the last dose of radiation, or the final chemo infusion, or – way down the road – the last hormone pill in the bottle, you think, “At last, I’m done. Back to normal.”
Only you discover “normal – your “new normal” – isn’t anything like your old life. And in many ways, that’s a good thing.
I’m a cancer veteran – 12 years out from diagnosis, and 3 years out from “being done.” Here’s some advice from someone who’s put that whole experience in the rearview mirror, and is watching it gradually recede.
Things change, part I. The health challenges you’re facing today won’t be the same as those you face 6 months from now… or in 6 years.
A year after surgery, I developed lymphedema; after many months of treatment, and despite predictions from my doctor that I’d deal with it for life, the lymphedema disappeared. Now, I only wear the sleeve a couple of times a year, a precautionary measure when traveling; lymphedema, once the gorilla in the corner, has apparently left the room – for good.
Things change, part II. The odd mixture of relief and fear, happiness and exhaustion you experience right after treatment has ended slowly morphs into calm – which is good in most ways, but disappointing in some.
Sure, it’s great not to feel nauseous “anticipation” of your next chemo infusion, or the subdued panic of going under the knife yet again. But you may miss the level of happiness – equal parts relief, gratitude, and joy – you initially felt at having made it through those months of miserable treatment. Think of like Dorothy leaving Oz – your technicolor emotions have settled back to their normal Kansas black-and-white.
Release everything negative you felt about cancer; let those feelings fade and disappear. But hold onto the joy you felt when you walked out of the hospital for the last time; and keep close the memories of the love and care you received from family, friends, and the medical community. Those things are worth remembering.
Learn acceptance. I often think we Americans feel WAY too entitled – to health, to prosperity, to an unchallenging life. Look around the world – there are very few who live as well as we do in this country. So, taking a broad view, your thinning hair, stiff shoulder, and itchy scars aren’t really that big a deal – right?
Sure, it’s irritating to wake up night after night with hot flashes that no amount of remedies – prescribed or otherwise – seem to touch. But if that’s the hand you’re dealt, play it the best you can. Accept how you feel; complaining doesn’t do you, your doctor, or anyone around you a bit of good. And revisit “Things change,” above. If you wait long enough, chances are medicine will find a cure for what’s bothering you, or it’ll disappear on its own.
Give back. One of the best things that ever happened to me was our local cancer center’s BeFriend program, which pairs breast cancer “veterans” with newly diagnosed survivors. Through this program, I’ve been able to help many women navigate those scary, confusing days before treatment starts.
“How long will it take me to recover from the mastectomy? What does chemo feel like? I’m afraid I’m going to die…” Some women I’ve connected with briefly; some have become fast friends. And every encounter reminds me that I’m happy to be alive, thankful to the docs and nurses who treated me, and eager to “pay it forward” by helping someone else along the path.
Look forward with hope. Will you die of breast cancer? No one on earth knows that answer. Maybe you’ll be part of the 17% of those diagnosed with invasive breast cancer who end up dying of the disease. But chances are you’ll be part of the 83% who don’t – survivors who continue to survive, and eventually pass away from some other cause.
Fear and worry are very human emotions; we all experience them. But if their source is cancer, try to keep things in perspective. Unless you’re dealing with a stage IV metastasis, chances are you’ll live into old age and experience a complete life, full of all the joys (and sorrows) we humans experience.
Hope for the future – this September, as the kids head back to school, what more could any of us ask?