Life after breast cancer. When I sat down to write this post, I stared at that sentence for what felt like hours. Who knew four little words could have so much power over you. As I work through those feelings with my therapist, it’s made me think about the concerns many women have about what their world will be like, once treatment is finished. Short version: There are ups—and downs. Long version: It's complicated, so keep reading! This piece shares my experience and is filled (I hope!) with the same sense of positivity I’ve tried to bring since my column first started. It also includes the three things that continue to help me every single day—before, during, and after my breast cancer treatment.
You know that childhood game Whack-A-Mole, where toy moles pop out of holes at random, and players use a mallet to hit them back “underground”? That’s kind of what I feel my life is like after breast cancer: a litany of questions and concerns that continue to pop up my mind daily. Only I can’t hit them away, like ever. No matter how big you think your mallet is or how fast you think you can swing it, there is no escaping these pop ups, as I so lovingly call them. So instead, I’ve learned to steer them in a different direction.
Let’s just get this off the table—for women who have been living with breast cancer, these are the questions and concerns that continue to pop up in our minds:
When is the cancer coming back?
Am I going to get another cancer since I’m at a higher risk of one?
What’s this new pain I have right now? The cancer is back for sure.
Are they are going to find something on my yearly scan?
Am I going to be around for my kid’s birthday? Graduation? Marriage?
What’s my partner going to think about my foobs post-mastectomy?
How am I supposed to date now that I’m “damaged goods”?
These are real questions I gathered from other breast cancer fighters and survivors. Now that you know what we deal with on a daily basis, let’s get down to brass tacks. These are the three things that help me through every day.
Your mental health matters. Let me say that again. Your mental health matters. Seek out help in your area with a mental health therapist. It’s as simple as googling mental health therapists near me.
Also, I know a lot of insurances are waiving the copay costs for any mental health services that you use during COVID. Mine is. Make sure to ask your insurance about what their stipulations are. You never know, you might just be able to get the help you need at no cost, and it’s just a phone call away.
You might also be wondering the difference between all the mental health therapists out there. I certainly did. Cancer.net breaks down the differences into layman’s term and I found it so helpful. Pro tip: If possible, find a therapist who specializes in cancer survivorship or has training in trauma and grief. It is a niche-focused specialty for a reason, and you want that person on your side.
In many ways, finding a therapist who is right for you is a lot like dating. No lie. You might have to “date” a lot of therapists before you find one you click with. I dated three before I found a keeper. There is nothing wrong with that. This is a relationship that you might have for a while and you want to feel like you can be yourself when you are talking with each other. (If you can’t be yourself with your therapist, are you really seeing the right one?)
One specific exercise that my therapist talked me through has helped tremendously in distinguishing between my feelings of uncertainty and the reality of those feelings. Here’s how it works. Start by saying the three sentences below. (You can swap in emotions other than uncertainty, too, like anger or sadness.)
I am uncertain about the future.
I am having a thought of uncertainty about the future.
I am noticing that I am having the thought of uncertainty about the future.
When you do this exercise, you first notice the feeling that you have. Then, by turning it into a thought, then noticing that you are having the thought, it lets you take a step back and see that your feelings don’t have as much control over you as you may think.
I literally took a deep breath after I did this exercise. I continue to work this into my daily or weekly routine when I notice my feelings are having too much power over me.
If you’ve been around from the beginning, you know how important the breast cancer community is to me. There is this unbroken bond between these people you have never met. I never thought that would be possible. You’re bonded by this experience no one ever wanted to be a part of. It connects you in ways that I could never describe. Here is a list of the community that has helped me along my journey. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to just know you’re connected to people who really do understand what you’re going through.
So on the nights that the steroids from chemo keep you up, or if the day before surgery has you on high alert, or when you’re grieving for your life pre-cancer—inspiring words from others will offer you the hope you never knew you needed. I hope you find it in your heart to connect with them as well.
I don’t know where you fall in this category, but I’m leaving it here because that is one thing I heard over and over when I talked to other breast cancer survivors: I prayed a lot.
Uncertainty over your future after cancer can be as daunting as the anger you feel when you’re first diagnosed with it. And it’s no lie that from the beginning of my diagnosis, I was angry at a lot of things. I questioned my faith a lot. But I didn’t let that stop me from trying to understand why this cancer journey was put into my life.
Whatever you believe, just know there is no right or wrong. Know that taking time for yourself to discover what you need—to cry, a hug, solitude, a laugh, a bible verse, a good Netflix binge—is the right thing when you need to feel grounded amidst all this uncertainty. Do what works for you!
Let’s Try This Again
So what happens when you’re done with the Whack-A-Mole game? You always think, “Let’s try again! I can do better!”
Here is me, trying again. I know I can do better at keeping fears about the future at bay. No matter where you are in your journey, the thoughts and feelings that pop in from time to time are normal. Please know that. And when you feel like you can’t whack them away, then know it’s OK to bring in the professionals. It doesn’t mean you are accepting defeat. It just means they may have a bigger mallet—and other tools to help you through this.
I am still living this chapter of my life, but I will leave you with this quote that I stumbled upon that gives me inspiration every day:
“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, yes, this is what happened. And I will choose how the story ends.”—author Brené Brown