Over the past five years, one relative and two close friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer. They’ve suffered through chemotherapy and radiation, lumpectomies and mastectomies.
Mere weeks ago, I was informed that yet another relative had been diagnosed with the disease. She’s already had surgery, and has just completed her first of four chemo treatments. Following those, she’s scheduled for five weeks of radiation, which will be followed by 10 years — YEARS — of hormone treatment. I wanted to try to find a way to help this family member cope, so I turned to my relative who’d already been through this lengthy and debilitating procedure and its associated intrusive indignities.
I was so moved and impressed by what she had to say, I thought the world, or at least Brandon Sun readers, should see it. My hope was that it would help others — of which, sadly, there are so many — make it through this process with their dignity, and their mental and most of their physical health, intact.
Fighting breast cancer is a very personal and intimate journey, and I didn’t feel the identities of the women involved, especially my eloquent relative, needed to be revealed in order for the power of the message to resonate with people, especially those who are currently in the middle of this journey. Consequently, you see the silhouette to the left as a representation of all women who have faced this grim diagnosis and its equally difficult treatment.
It should be noted that the rate of breast cancer survival is higher now than it’s ever been, and while a diagnosis of any form of "The Big C" strikes fear in the heart of anyone who hears it, for most breast cancer sufferers, the prognosis is much less bleak that it was at earlier points in our history. And while everyone’s experience and response is different — this is by no means a one-outlook-fits-all guide to dealing with breast cancer — no one can tell the story as well as someone who’s been there. And so begins this interview.
Essentially — and I know because we talked about this a lot before we did so formally for this published piece — you, like most people who get this diagnosis, thought instantly, and before the treatment began, about dying. But now you’re a survivor.
Well, I'm not quite a ‘survivor’ yet. I'd need a few more years under my belt for that.
For the record, survivorship is a lot more difficult in some ways than the treatments for cancer. I'm at moderate to high risk for recurrence and some days, it's hard to keep the present moment in focus when every ache, pain, or flash of fatigue could mean more treatments or even death. I'm a little reluctant to come out of the shadows because tolerating the horror of breast cancer treatment is so rooted in hope and optimism. Simply, I don't want all the positivity I'm going to lay out in my advice — which is what you asked me for initially — to be negated by an outcome, for me, that might not be great.
I didn’t realize you were still going through that. I know you worked really hard at remaining positive and hopeful during your treatment. So it’s almost harder now that most of the awfulness is over? In order to deal with it, the focus at the time is on getting through the chemo and the radiation and the surgery — I understand that. But then once that’s done, it’s almost like you retreat to a time just after diagnosis when the disease’s potential impact on your life is not so fleeting?
Pretty much. Let me give you an example. Last year, which was a few years AFTER I’d gone through the surgery, Raylene Rankin of the Rankin Family died of breast cancer. It was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the CBC decided to replay an interview from five years back that they'd done with poor Raylene a couple of years after her first go-round with cancer. It was very depressing and demoralizing. I still think about it.
Wow. That’s heavy. I’m sorry you had to endure that. And I’m sure there’d be plenty of people who’d be surprised to hear — and who might callously suggest that you should ‘just get over it’ — that the fear lingers long after the issue has supposedly been ‘dealt’ with.
People can sympathize or criticize all they want. But although it’s different for everybody, and everybody deals with it in their own way, nobody knows what it’s like until they’ve been through it. And that goes for the family, too. It’s not just about the person with cancer. It takes a huge toll on your loved ones as well.
That being said, when you asked me if I had any advice for someone who’s going through treatment right now, I initially demurred. But I figured out I do have some thoughts about how to make it easier.
I did ask you, and I’m so grateful you allowed me to share what I think are really invaluable tips with readers. I’m hoping a lot of people will benefit from your insight.
Well, if I can help anybody, that would be a good thing. So my first thought is this: Take each cycle of treatment one at a time. Don't anticipate the next one. Just focus on the progress of one more under your belt. In other words, stay in the present. For example, a person might get a cocktail of different chemo drugs at different times. Focus only on dealing with the side effects of the drugs you're on right now. Keep a journal of how you feel, so that you know what to expect when the next cycle of the same drugs comes along. This gave me a sense of control and moderated my anxiety about the future, and the fear that I might not have one.
I didn’t realize there were different mixtures of drugs.
There are. And every chemo cocktail has different side effects. Know what they are and prepare ahead of time. This seems to contradict what I just said, but it is very specific.
I know you were prepared for, but still appalled by, your hair loss.
That’s a tough one. You will lose your hair — all of it — everywhere. Buy a wig now, lots of pretty scarves, and learn how to apply makeup to compensate for a lack of eyebrows and eyelashes. Now! Not when you're feeling like crap. Above all, don't be all ‘strong’ about truly nasty side effects. Tell your doctor or nurse what’s happening so they can help you, because they will. Don't turn down the Valium! Moisturize your body every day — not just your face. Chemo stops your skin cells from regenerating and they need all the help they can get.
A lot of people, when they’re first diagnosed, turn to the web to find out everything they can. What are your thoughts on that?
Stay away from the Internet! There are thousands of stories out there about women with breast cancer. You don't need to hear them or carry them because your cancer is likely different then theirs. Above all, don't become the disease. You're still the same interesting person you were before you got ‘the cancer.’ Stay focused on your prior interests or start a project you've always wanted to do, but didn't have the time for. You don't really need to become an expert on cancer, but you do have to become very good at knowing how to get better. These are different things.
Sometimes, people just cocoon in their homes until the ‘horror,’ as you termed it, is over. But you think that’s a bad idea? At least it was for you?
If you have any regular things that get you out of the house — in my case it was a regular monthly pedicure — keep it up. You'd be surprised how much normalcy and support you can get out of such a simple thing.
And how about work? One would think you wouldn’t need the stress of that at such a delicate time.
If you take a leave from work, stay in touch, and offer to do what you can from home. It's important to feel useful.
Folks react differently, and sometimes badly, when people they love are going through something like you went through. How do you cope with that?
See, talk and write to your friends as often as you can. Keep complaints to a minimum, laugh as much as you possible.
Remember, though, that friends and family love you, but some are better than others at showing their support. Forgive the ones who can't help, and embrace the ones who can.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 23, 2013