I’ve made a lot of new friends in the past 10 years: a 90-year-old widow; a single, 28-year-old law-student who is the same age as my son; a 68-year-old Baptist minister; a 47-year-old quilt maker. And don’t forget the 70-year-old grandfather and boiler repairman.
We’re young, old, black, white, working, retired, single, widowed, and married. On paper, we have little in common, but we are all members of the same club, one none of us asked to join. We’ve all battled breast cancer. And while we didn’t choose to take this journey, along the bumpy road we’ve discovered a warm and welcoming sisterhood (with one brother).
This month, as I celebrate my 10-year cancerversary of being diagnosed, I look back fondly on all my fellow survivors I have met along the way. They are my “cancer” friends, I joke. But truthfully, they are also my new BFFs (in this case, “Breast Friends Forever.”) They are there to listen, understand, and just be there for me along the way.
I wouldn’t have made it without them.
Cancer as a battlefield
Having cancer is like going to war without training, preparation, or much advance warning. One day your draft notice appears, and the next you’re forced onto the battlefield. You bond with your sisters in the trenches. Sometimes you hold hands and pray. Other times you offer a shoulder to cry on. You also laugh... at your scars, your lopsidedness, your baldness, and your chemo brain.
You look for guidance from those who were drafted earlier. And then, once you know the terrain, you help the new recruits navigate the system and avoid the minefields.
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just sit around and commiserate the loss of our breasts or hair or talk about the little niggling worry of recurrence that remains in the back of our minds.
Over the years, we’ve had lots of fun together. My breast surgeon has organized gatherings to bring us companionship and connection. She knows that when you’re going through a tough time, having someone to talk to who has walked in your shoes can bring comfort and hope, often as important in healing as medicine. Study after study has shown that support from others facing the same challenges helps people feel less depressed and anxious and gives them a more positive outlook on life.
And so over the years we’ve attended dance and cooking classes, health seminars, and weekly water exercise together. Despite our obvious differences, we’ve never lacked for conversation. We start out talking about our families, jobs and lives, but we always end up on the topic of cancer.
After all, it’s what unites us.
How having support helps
It’s nice to know that “I have people.” Although we rarely see each other outside of the activities organized by our doctors, I know they’ve got my back. Then there are also the thousands of survivors in online support chat rooms that I occasionally peruse in the middle of the night when I’ve had a question or a fear that keeps me awake. Somewhere in that virtual world of pixels and blinking cursors is solace.
I send out an SOS into the wide blue yonder and miraculously just the right words to calm my soul bounce back. Sometimes my inbox is overwhelmingly full of advice, affirmation, and hope. Just what I needed and better than anything I’ve ever gotten IRL (in real life, for those who need to know).
With my fellow survivors I can complain about the pain in my joints that’s a medication side effect, or admit to still being fearful that my annual mammogram may show something new. They get it. They’ve been there. They don’t try to calm me with platitudes or write off a phantom pain as “nothing.” They know all too well it could be “something.”
I’ve learned so much from them, even as the years pass. It’s obvious when you are trudging through months of diagnostic tests, treatment, and recuperation. But sometimes, when you’re post all that and thriving, without the constant support of doctors, you need it most.
And so I’ve built my network to sustain me. They’re my tribe; they’re my battalion. And I know I am not alone.