Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The healing power of sharing my cancer story compelled me to found WWGN. I'm an inspirational speaker, contributor at CURE and Positively Positive, Huffington Post blogger, support volunteer with Cancer Hope Network, member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, patient educator with Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer.
I had my mastectomy on a Wednesday. I think it was Friday morning, when the anesthesia finally wore off, that I had my breakdown.
Not being in my right mind, I could be wrong.
What I know for sure is that cancer had been eating away at my emotions for the past six and a half months, and I was completely devastated. It didn’t take much for all those tubes and bandages, and a missing breast, to push me over the edge.
Unfortunately, I wasn't very happy after my mastectomy and experienced my fair share of cancer anger. In my latest article for CURE I write about anger, a common emotional response to being diagnosed with and treated for cancer.
Working Through Cancer Anger
A few months after my mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, I had it out with the light fixture in my walk-in closet.
Like me, the bulb was burnt out. Removing the cover to replace it was easy, but I couldn’t get the cover back on for the life of me.
Worrying and cancer go hand-in-hand. It’s possible to take a step back from excessive worrying and give yourself a break.
Worry. Worry. Worry.
A day of worry is more exhausting than a week of work. John Lubbock
I admit it. I’m a worrywart.
I’ve worried about little things and not so little things. When big worries have me in their grip, it’s hard to fall asleep and, if I finally pass out, I’ll probably find myself wide awake again in the middle of the night with no hope of getting back to sleep.
I also can't eat when I’m really worried.
I’ve worried over cancer through exhaustion and back around again. I’ve done stints of long-term worrying (six and a half months from my first worrisome mammogram to my mastectomy) and intense, short-term worrying (15 harrowing minutes waiting to discuss a post-mastectomy mammogram.)
To validate all this worrying, I try to convince myself it gives me control. Perhaps by running through every possible outcome I’ll be prepared for any eventuality. Maybe I’ll find a solution if I just keep thinking it all through. Of course, mostly I just end up exhausted and hungry.
Cancer brought me to the pinnacle of worrying and forced me to search for relief. In a panic about my upcoming mastectomy, I found a guided imagery CD, Preparing for Surgery: Guided Imagery Exercises for Relaxation & Accelerated Healing. I put it on my iPod and, at least once a day for weeks, let Dr. Martin Rossman focus my imagination away from worries and onto relaxation. At night, guided imagery calmed my nerves and got me to sleep.
When the day of my surgery finally arrived, I was nervous but ready. I took the iPod with me into pre-op and continued to listen to the guided imagery exercises until I actually went into surgery. That CD made a huge difference and helped get me through a horrendous experience.
I've struggled with miscarriages, infertility and breast cancer. Each trauma isolated me from others who couldn't possibly understand my experience. The pain of cancer's isolaltion was the worst. In my latest article at CURE, I share my search for someone to talk to:
Part of the healing process is sharing with other people who care. Jerry Cantrell
The lead up to my mastectomy was a time of crushing anxiety. But, never once in those six and a half months, did I find anyone I could talk to about what it really felt like to have cancer.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I looked to friends and family, but backed off when guilt at causing them pain collided with my intense desire to protect them from that pain. And, in truth, there was just too much I couldn’t explain and they couldn’t understand.
Of course, they kept trying to support me emotionally and I’ll always be grateful they did, but there was only so much they could do.
At one point, I reached out to the only other person I knew who had cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and her drug treatment caused permanent, disabling side-effects.
We didn’t know each other well, but she shared her struggle with being sick and “feeling like an old lady” in her forties. She grieved the job her disability forced her to quit. As a wife and mother, she wrestled with guilt and anxiety as cancer wreaked havoc on her family.
Between infertility, miscarriages and cancer, I've had my share of health issues. When it comes to figuring out how to be a good patient, I'm still learning because cancer, as we all know, is never really over:
What it Takes to be a Good Patient
It’s not easy to be good at something you hate, especially when it comes to being a patient.
Having lived through two miscarriages and infertility before cancer hit, I had basic skills. I knew how to show up (on time) for appointments, wait patiently no matter how long it took, honestly answer questions and listen intently.
But cancer took being a patient to a whole new level. There was a new language, not much time to learn it, and much more on the line, like the husband and two children we now had to worry about.
Being older and more experienced than I was when we struggled with infertility helped. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was somehow able to stop my breast surgeon as she explained the “how” of my mastectomy to insist that she go back to the “why.” To prepare for an intelligent conversation about reconstruction with my plastic surgeon, I did research on the internet at credible sites.
I tried to ask questions, speak up and be my own advocate. As time went on, however, cancer wore me out and I had less and less energy to assert myself.
One of the hardest things I had to deal with after my mastectomy was the pressure to be over cancer.
I know they meant well, but the friends and family who announced "the worst is over" and moved on left me behind in their dust, unable to follow.
Of course, all of the pressure I felt wasn't external. I pressured myself too by expecting somehow to return to "normal," an expectation that took its own sweet time to die.
But slowly, and with immense support, I learned how to relieve the pressure.
How to Cope with the Pressure to be Over Cancer
My pre-cancer self knew nothing of the disease. I stumbled through the four and a half months it took to get a diagnosis like a kindergartener in a graduate course.
At six and a half months in, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. By then, my bright red, hip-to-hip scar, missing nipple and asymmetrical breasts gave me a pretty good handle on cancer’s physical effects.
Getting my head around the emotional consequences was infinitely harder.
Looking back, it’s not like I didn’t feel anything. I was miserable, fatigued, lonely, stressed, angry and overwhelmed. But, unlike physical scars, the severity of those wounds wasn’t obvious when I looked in the mirror.
I had no idea then that recuperating from the emotional devastation of cancer was going to be even harder than recuperating from the physical damage.
In fact, people I trusted told me the exact opposite. As soon as I got home from the hospital, friends and family expressed relief that “the worst is over” and returned to their regularly scheduled lives. A cancer survivor I knew and one of my doctors assured me that cancer would take a year of my life and then “it would be over.”
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