Taking Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis in Stride

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • It’s an early summer twilight, and I lie on my back in the cooling, slowly dampening grass, watching the sky turn from peregrine blue to royal to cobalt to the inky color of night. I feel a tickle on my back–grass, or ants? I don’t move; pressing the entire length of my body against this warm earth is just too comforting.

    Five years ago, on a beautiful early summer day just like this one, I got the news we all fear: the biopsy was positive. Breast cancer. The radiologist, sitting on the edge of the desk swinging his legs, tried to put a positive spin on it; treatments are very effective, the tumor looks small, probably a lumpectomy, a young woman such as yourself…
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    Wait a minute–did he say young woman? My mind, a complete frozen blank since I’d heard the word ”cancer,” fixated on the words “young woman.” “Hey, 47 isn’t so young; I must look better than I think. Neat!” Amazing how a woman’s vanity doesn’t quit, even when she’s being handed a possible death sentence.

    I walked out of the hospital, got into my car, and thought, “I should cry.” But no tears would come. In 10 minutes, my life had been turned upside down. I might die. What about my son? He’s only 15. I’m not done with him yet! I can’t die. Not me. Cancer happens to other people. Not to me. Not to ME. I sat stupefied, and finally drove home.

    And so the journey began. The tumor was bigger than they thought. The cancer was invasive. Lymph node involvement. The lumpectomy didn’t work out. It had spread. Mastectomy. Chemo. Pneumonia. Radiation. Lymphedema. I felt like a pinball, each new bumper sending me spinning in the wrong direction, down yet another dark path. Finally, after 9 months, I emerged out of the tunnel: cut and stitched, poisoned, irradiated, hairless, white, defenseless. The cancer had been bullied into submission, shoved into hiding; and my body had been left a scarred battlefield, testament to a brutal war.

    Now, 5 years later, a tight, painful shoulder, a hip-to-hip scar, and tingling where my breast used to be are the only physical reminders of that battle. The emotional scars remain, but when I wake up in the morning, I’m no longer afraid of dying. In fact, when I wake up I don’t even remember I’ve had cancer, until the ache in my shoulder starts, and I see my “new” hair in the mirror–wonderfully curly, where once it was stick-straight. Every step I take is another step away from those days when the battle raged inside me, and I felt myself in a whirling vortex, helpless to do anything other than wait it out, and see whether the good guys would win.

    So far, they have. It’s five years since diagnosis; that’s supposed to be some kind of milestone. The sun rises every day, and I’m still here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve decided to spin like a leaf in the river’s current, letting it carry me along, rather than to dig in my roots and resist like a tree–because that tree will surely fall. To reach out my hand to another woman starting down the cancer path, and let her know there IS life left at the end, after you’ve hosted the deadliest of battles. And to take time to lie on the lawn on a lovely summer evening.

  • I take one last look at that big night sky, brush myself off, and head inside. Dinner’s calling. And so is my life.
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Published On: July 06, 2006