Chronic Comparisons

A breast cancer diagnosis can easily leave us spinning out of control.  We get the news, and just like that, our lives change. We scratch and claw our way through treatment, clinging to faith, our support system, or whatever else gets us through, and we wait for life to return to normal.  I’ve been thinking about this process a lot lately. When I was knee deep in it, I felt isolated.  None of my friends had cancer.  None of them had their lives ripped apart, their purpose shaken, their grip on reality loosened, or just felt — lost.  Once treatment was over, though, I climbed my way out of the dark hole, joined a support group and forged some new friendships with other survivors.  That’s when I got smacked in the face with the harsh reality that I’d be waiting for a long time for things to return to normal.

Chronic Comparisons

The doctors’ visits didn’t stop.  Questioning every ache and pain became the norm.  Medical bills steadily rolled in.  And everyone around me kept moving forward, leaving me to deal with what just happened by myself.  I got involved with other survivors and easily found comfort in their experiences.  It was healing to meet women who understood where I’d been and where I was headed, but I met women who had stories more grueling than mine, and still more who would never know what “treatment-free” felt like again because they’d been diagnosed as Stage IV.  It was my first introduction to life after cancer, and it changed me.

I minimized.

With every cancer story I heard, I minimized my own.  And that impacted me far beyond what I could have ever imagined. Something that I felt tested my strength, altered my body, changed my relationships and was the single hardest thing I’d ever faced was no longer a big deal because my new friends had it much worse than me.  I found myself saying, “I only had a lumpectomy.”  I heard embarrassment in my voice when I felt a need to explain why I still had my hair. To me, the side effects of chemo weren’t worth the small percentage of “added protection” it would have given me, so I opted out.  As if somehow that decision made me less brave?  Less worthy to call myself a survivor?

About three weeks after I finished radiation, when the swelling finally settled, I realized for the first time that I was not only lopsided, but my right breast had shrunk over a cup size.  I was happy to be alive, so it did seem like a small price to pay, but the real issue is that I felt guilty for pursuing a “fix” for my aesthetic problem.  I hung on to that guilt–my belief that a deflated breast was nothing to fret about–when others had much bigger problems requiring way more grit and bravery than I ever had to muster.  I longed for that fix, but I felt that if I pursued it, I was being vain, and worse, ungrateful.  Thoughts like these kept me from inquiring about reconstruction post-lumpectomy.  “Reconstruct what?”  I imagined my doctor asking, “You didn’t have a mastectomy.”

I wrestled with this for two years, but it wasn’t until I’d had a half dozen biopsies after my original diagnosis that I visited a plastic surgeon.  After much thought, I felt I should research a “do-over” to rid myself of these dense breasts and future cancer scares, but upon visiting with multiple plastic surgeons, ultimately I decided the surgery and reconstruction risks they presented post-radiation were more than I wanted to entertain.  Upon exiting the last surgeon’s office, she told me, “If you decide not to go the mastectomy route, you know I can still fix your current problem, right?”

For the first time, I felt like I had permission to be myself. That it was okay that I was not happy with my outcome even though I was grateful to be alive.  We live in a society where women routinely have their breasts augmented or undergo plastic surgery procedures to feel better about themselves, and yet there I was feeling pressure to forego the same type of self-esteem booster because I’d had cancer and survived?  It was hard for me to let go of the guilt, to allow myself permission to do what I needed to do to make myself happy, and to realize that I am not trivializing others’ cancer experiences by doing what I need to do for myself.


I still have issues with bra fit because I didn’t have enough body fat to completely boost my right breast to the size of the healthy one, but I’m happy to discover that there are products available for people like me who need to fill the gap.  I’m less self-conscious these days, but when I do need wardrobe assistance, I wear the Impressions Shell Triangle from Trulife, a breast form specifically designed to provide symmetry after a lumpectomy or reconstruction.

Over the years, I’ve listened to many women who’ve voiced the same guilt regarding their cancer experiences.  And, today, I still believe that the former outcome of my breast definitely does not compare with others’ more serious and life threatening concerns.  The difference in my current mindset is my acceptance that it’s okay for me to be wherever I am on this journey and acknowledge my feelings regardless of how insignificant I might perceive them to be. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that cancer leaves scars behind that can’t be seen–like the negative thoughts we feed ourselves and the guilt we allow to control our actions.

Regardless of our diagnoses, courses of treatment, or outcomes, one thing is for sure.  We share commonalities, but we’re all on very different roads.  What have been your experiences?


Victorious Val

  1. Marianne
    Marianne says:

    This is so spot on! When I started treatment the navigator told me about the support group at the cancer ctr., but I was like no that’s not for me. I don’t need to go and listen to everyone else’s problems.
    But when I ended treatment I felt so lost!
    I felt guilty for surviving when so many others had not.
    I felt guilty for wanting to replace the one breast I had lost. But after many doctors visits and some soul searching,two years later I had the second breast removed and breast implants done, all the while thinking how vain of me!
    Well I got over all of it after I found a group on FB, by Victorious Val…
    To connect with so many going down the survivor path was so freeing… To know there were others out there with the same thoughts and feelings. I truly would not have made it thru all this without you Val and I will never forget you!!!!

  2. Marianne
    Marianne says:

    Well I tend to ramble…short and sweet . It’s a long hard road and any help going down it is truely a godsend..

  3. Pam Brumfield-Uriarte
    Pam Brumfield-Uriarte says:

    This was like reading my own thoughts. I did not have to do radiation and opted out of chemo as well, and I often have to fight off the feeling that my cancer experience was not as “real” as someone who did have to do chemo and/or rads. A mastectomy and reconstruction are no cakewalk either. Just being told that you have cancer will leave scars. It is all traumatic, and I am so grateful for all my Survivor Sisters. They gave me more strength and courage than anything else. Even though none of our paths are identical, it is the same destination we are all heading for, and nobody else gets it like someone who has been there. Thanks for this Val. You took the owrds right out of my mouth.

  4. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Once again – you nailed it! I battle with this almost every day. I constantly find myself saying “I only had stage 0,” “I only had to have a mastectomy,” “my cancer wasn’t life threatening,” and “I don’t consider myself a survivor because there was nothing to fight or survive”. Yet this past summer was the most frightening time of my life – and it was over almost as fast as it began. All of a sudden I went from visiting doctors weekly to nothing for 6 months. That alone made me feel abandoned. Now I’ve just started reconstruction and barely anyone remembers what I went through just 6 months ago but I’m more reminded every day – especially when my 10 year old daughter is crying because she thinks my reconstructed breasts can give me cancer again. It still haunts me daily. A good friend told me ” this is your cancer and you have to own it. Yes there are others much worse off and it’s right to give your heart and prayers to them but it doesn’t lesson what your going through and the impact it’s had on your life”. I hold on dearly to that advice.

  5. Ramona
    Ramona says:

    One of my coping skills is that I can always find someone who has it worse/harder than I do, and being diagnosed with, and being treated for breast cancer was no different. It wasn’t until 6 months or more post treatment (lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation) that I was able to acknowledge to myself that even though I had it easier than some others, what I went through was still pretty horrible and awful. I am slowly learning to be kind to myself.

  6. Victorious Val
    Victorious Val says:

    Marianne, you are the sweetest. We all experience so much of the same stuff, and sometimes it seems like maybe it’s not everyone–and JUST us. Not true! You have been so instrumental in my recovery too. I look forward to all your posts and comments. You’re a tremendous person and so appreciated.

  7. Victorious Val
    Victorious Val says:

    Pam, your path is definitely just as worthy as anyone else’s! We may not all have the same procedures, but you hit the nail on the head–we all have the same scared feelings and we all experience our own form of trauma.

  8. Victorious Val
    Victorious Val says:

    Bravo! It’s the same for me. Being kind to yourself can be so hard. We extend grace to everyone else, but sometimes we don’t extend ourselves that same courtesy!

  9. Victorious Val
    Victorious Val says:

    That’s some really good advice, Virginia! Bravo to your friend for giving it to you! I am going to remember that myself! You offer all valid points. 🙂