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.
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.
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?