Fighting Breast Cancer: Allow Yourself to Have a Bad Day

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • A friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer apologized to me the other night, “I’m sorry I’m not being a good friend. I guess I’m just having a bad day.”

    I wanted to grab her and give her a shake, like a dog with a favorite toy. HELLO: Don’t apologize. Of COURSE you’re having a bad day. You were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness six weeks ago, and since then you’ve had three surgeries, you’ve lost a breast, you’ve been informed you have to have chemo, which means hair loss and weeks of crummy side effects… at the end of which we all HOPE the cancer is in remission. But no guarantees.

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    You’re entitled to a bad day. In fact, go ahead and have a bunch of ’em. Without guilt. 

    I volunteer at our local cancer center in the BeFriend program, which matches women who’ve been through breast cancer with similarly diagnosed women just starting on the journey. I email and meet and talk to lots of women in those first awful weeks, when it feels like every waking moment is spent trying to absorb the fact that I HAVE CANCER. And meanwhile treatment is rushing forward.

    I can’t believe I have cancer.

    After the sentinel node biopsy, you’ll have to have either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, we won’t know till we see…

    I can’t believe I have cancer.

    If we get clean margins, then you’ll meet with a radiation oncologist…

    I might die.

    If the Oncotype DX test shows you’re a good candidate, we’ll do six rounds of adriamycin and cytoxan…

    What if I die? Who’ll take care of the kids?

    And then, once you’re through that, four rounds of taxol…

    I can’t die. My mother needs me.

    If the chemo goes OK, you’ll start on Arimidex…

    I can’t die.

    I can’t believe I have cancer.

    Being diagnosed with cancer is one of those life-changing events—like divorce, like losing your job, like the death of an immediate family member—that shakes you to your core. Because, to most of us, cancer = death. We don’t know any better. We don’t realize the incredible strides that have been made in treatment, the huge statistical increase in 5-year survival rates. Who knew that 20% of breast cancer cases are now considered completely curable? And that most of the rest of us have a decent prognosis for a good, long post-treatment life living with our cancer?

    As cancer neophytes, we don’t know the positives. Only the negatives. The “This could kill me” kick in the gut. Is it any wonder sadness, fear, and anger can become daily companions?

    My advice? Go ahead, have a bad day. It’s OK to be sad, to be afraid, to be mad at the world, and envious of every woman out there without breast cancer. Validate your feelings. Recognize them for what they are: feelings. Understand that they’re only as permanent as you let them be, because the one thing we CAN control, in this whole crummy cancer process, is our attitude. So once you’re done feeling bad, when you’re tired of it—see if you can let those feelings go.

    Yeah, you drew the short straw. You’re going to have bad days. But every step you take through treatment is a step closer to being done with it. And pretty soon, the better days will start to outnumber the crummy ones. For each day that you wake up and see those emotional storm clouds, understand that the next day you might open your eyes to clear blue sky.

  • Have as many bad days as you want and need. But understand that each has a shelf life of just 24 hours. And that the next 24 hours has the potential to be a whole lot better.

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    Faith in tomorrow; it's a beautiful thing. Especially when today feels like the end of the world.

Published On: July 31, 2008