Sharing Breast Cancer Treatment Stories with Other Women

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Imagine this situation. (Actually, I’ll bet many of you have been here, so it’s more remembering than imagining.) You’re in a group of women, women who’ve had breast cancer. The talk shifts, as it always does, to personal experience. One woman tells of her DCIS and lumpectomy. Another says she had three lumpectomies: “They just couldn’t get clean margins.” Someone else tried a lumpectomy, but when that wasn’t sufficient had a mastectomy. Then a woman who had a mastectomy followed by a tram flap reconstruction ups the ante. Eventually the “horrors of chemo” stories start. And so it goes.

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    Do you see what’s happening? Every story has to be more difficult than the one before–more treatment, more complications, a tougher prognosis. To put it bluntly, it’s cancer competition. And we don’t need it.

    Americans are taught early on to be competitive. Mothers rush their children to read before kindergarten, then smugly let on that their 5-year-old is already reading, and seeing how mature she is, maybe kindergarten won’t be a challenge for her and she should skip right to first grade? On the playground, boys take turns jumping from higher and higher perches, while girls watch one another to see who can surround themselves with the most friends. And that’s even before organized sports kick in (though up here in the north country, you can start playing in a hockey league when you’re 4 years old). And so it goes, throughout our lives. Unless we make a conscious effort to stop, our default is to play the one-up game: “You think THAT’S (bad, good, exciting… fill in the blank); wait’ll you hear MY story!”

    Why do we all have this desire to stand out? Because that’s what competition is; the need to put yourself above those around you. Sure, there’s a time and place for that; I have to admit, my lifelong dream came true when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. But there’s a time to NOT put yourself above everyone else; a time to figuratively go sit at the foot of the table. And I believe the cancer experience is one of those times.

    Too often, I’ve been in a group of breast cancer conquerors (a.k.a. survivors – I prefer the more positive word), and noticed that one or two women will be very quiet. Sometimes they just don’t know how to jump into the conversation; those of us who are shy have trouble speaking up, even in the most welcoming of atmospheres. When the group disbands and we go our separate ways, I make a point to ask these women if they were comfortable with the conversation; if they preferred to just listen, or if they wished they could have spoken, but simply didn’t get the chance. Time and time again, they’ll answer with a variation on the following: “Oh, my cancer wasn’t so bad; I only had DCIS and a lumpectomy. I feel silly talking about it in front of these other women who’ve been through so much more than I have.” And every time I hear this, I feel a bit diminished, a bit less proud to be a part of this strong, vibrant community of women with cancer.

  • The toughest part of cancer is hearing the words “You have cancer," then fully absorbing the message: “I have cancer, and I could die. Who’ll take care of my kids (my mother, my father, my spouse)? I’m not ready to die!” Everything that comes after that–be it drugs, drugs and surgery, drugs and surgery and radiation, or whatever the combination of potential cures–is a challenge laid atop that initial shock. But the one experience we ALL have in common is that moment when we think we’ve heard our own death sentence; and for all of us, it’s a devastating, defining moment in our lives.

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    So next time you hear yourself describing your treatment to other women who’ve also been through the cancer experience, stop and think: would it be better to listen to someone else’s story instead? Or to steer the conversation away from “I can go you one better,” to “Here are some coping strategies I’ve found when I start to feel the fear come back”? Think about it.

    How do you deal with cancer competition? Leave a comment or write a SharePost!

Published On: July 18, 2006