Living with Breast Cancer and learning to Accept yourself

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Acceptance. Does the word mean giving up… or settling in? Does it feel negative to you, or positive?

    The answer to that probably depends a lot on your personality. Some of us avoid a battle at all costs. And some of us feel the desire to be adversarial –- and act on it -– multiple times a day. As you go through the cancer experience, you’ll face many crossroads; and some of them will define your limits of acceptance. The boundaries of your tolerance will be tested over and over again. If you didn’t know before your own personal line in the sand –- when you say “I’m fine,” and mean it, vs. when you say “No way!” -– breast cancer will certainly teach you.
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    Learning your limits probably starts very early in the breast cancer process. Perhaps before you even know you have cancer, after you’ve received that call-back for the “questionable” mammogram. You dutifully trudge back to the hospital or doctor’s office, trying to ignore the fact that your stomach has become a sinkhole. You go through that second mammogram, go home, and nervously await the results. And wait, and wait… How long does it take for you to call and rattle their cage? And how much hemming and hawing do you accept –- do you tolerate –- before you demand some action? As you (potentially) enter a new and challenging stage of your life, you’re already learning about your level of patience and acceptance.

    So you have cancer, get a wide-excision lumpectomy, and now your breasts don’t match. The surgeon says “We got clean margins, so I’m 99% positive we got all the cancer.” She’s beaming. You’re happy for the clean margins, do a mental shrug about your new appearance, and move on with your life. Or you can’t stand the way you look, even though you’re glad the operation was a “success.” So you start exploring breast reconstruction, even though it means more surgery, more expense, more time off from work. Which reaction is “right?”

    And then there’s chemo. Your hair falls out, everything tastes like a tin can, and you can’t go shopping at the mall for fear of exposure to too many germs. On top of all that, you’re slightly nauseous. Do you think to yourself, “Well, it’s not really too bad, I can live with this.” Or do you get a prescription for anti-nausea drugs, and when they don’t work, you call and get another, and when THEY prove ineffective, you ask about acupuncture, and where you might find some medicinal marijuana?  

    The point is this: acceptance –- your tolerance level –- is neither a positive nor a negative; it’s a purely personal concept. Each of us finds our own comfort zone to live in. And that’s the critical part: discovering the boundaries of that zone. If you’re a fighter, don’t keep forcing those feisty emotions below the surface during cancer treatment, just so that you can be a “good patient.” If you disagree with a certain part of treatment, question your doctor closely, and hold your ground if you still think you’re right. “Hell, yes! I’m getting a silicone implant, and I don’t care if you think saline is safer.” Fighting is the process you use to work through your decisions; don’t downplay its importance.

  • On the other hand, if you’re a “make love, not war” woman, don’t let friends or family badger you into being more assertive -– more adversarial –- than you want to be. “You should get a second opinion.” “But I don’t want a second opinion. I like my doctor; I trust him.” “You’re crazy if you don’t get a second opinion, with something this important.” “But…” Learn not to engage in these conversations. Well-meaning friends trying to re-create you in their own image aren’t improving your situation. Walk away.
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    Acceptance. Tolerance. Maybe you’re a woman ready to fight at the drop of a hat. Or maybe people call you a doormat behind your back. When you have cancer, it’s more important than ever to be comfortable in your own skin, whether it’s thick or thin.
Published On: May 29, 2007