Life Before Breast Cancer and Life After Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Six years ago this week, I lay half-naked on a cold table, one arm crooked uncomfortably over my head, counting the ceiling tiles and listening to bad country music as I received one final dose of radiation. Late February marked the end of a journey that had begun in May of the previous year–May 10, to be exact, the day I heard those words, “You have cancer.”

    Since then, I’ve felt my life divide in half, like a cookbook falling open at a favorite recipe: Before Cancer, and After Cancer. Before Cancer, I was focused on getting ahead at work; stress meant standing in line at the supermarket. After Cancer, standing in line anywhere became a welcome moment of relaxation and people-watching. And I found my true calling–helping other women through cancer.

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    So, this is for all of you women out there experiencing the kick-in-the-gut shock of diagnosis, or currently going through the long slog of treatment, or finding your way through a new and confusing post-treatment world. There IS life after cancer; lots of life. Never doubt it.

    A best friend who’d been through cancer told me, in those first days after diagnosis, “Believe it or not, the day will come when cancer isn’t the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning. And then the day will come when you don’t think about cancer at all.”


    True? Well… not quite. My body geography has been too altered to completely forget cancer; every time I step out of the shower and see the armpit scars, the long white tram-flap line running from hip to hip, the reconstructed right breast, I think of cancer. But it’s not that sinking-pit-in-the-stomach feeling. It’s more like, Oh, yeah, I’ve had cancer. And I’d love to lose these love handles around my waist, and I’d better call for a hair appointment… The scars, the numbness, the lingering ache of post-mastectomy shoulder problems are here to stay. But seeing and feeling cancer’s physical effects no longer has the power to send me into an emotional tailspin.

    Another friend told me, “Cancer is a rock in the path. Step over it; the path will still be there.” And she was right. It was more a multi-day hike than a single step, but I got over it. With the help of many women who’d gone before me, women who could tell me what to wear to radiation, what not to eat during chemo, when to ask for physical therapy. I got through it, over it, past it, around it… in short, cancer didn’t stop me.

    But cancer did change my direction. That same friend told me, “Cancer can change your life–if you let it.” Thankfully, I did. I’ve held tight to my new lease on life, stopping to smell the flowers (literally), refusing to be sucked down into petty negativity, seeing the best in people. During treatment I felt my heart expand, the result of so much wonderful care–so much healing–coming from so many different places, family and friends and medical folks. Like Natalia, I feel a burning desire to give back, to offer other women battling cancer the same love and support I received. So I partner with women just starting treatment at my local hospital. I organize an informal Friday afternoon social/support group. I post on this site. And every time I help someone else, my own life is enriched. It’s a serendipitous circle.

  • So, if you’re about to step over that rock in the path, don’t despair. It looks insurmountable, but truly, it’s not, Tiny steps lead to larger ones; a crawl becomes a trudge and then a walk, or even a joyful sprint. Millions of women have survived breast cancer. And many have found their life richer, more satisfying, and happier than it ever was before. It happened to me; it can happen to you. And that’s my view, six years out.

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Published On: February 19, 2008