My life after breast cancer and how it made me wake up to the realities of my future
My life after breast cancer and how it made me wake up to the realities of my future
In 2013 I had stage 1 breast cancer. It changed the way I see life and it changed all of my decisions thereafter. I hope you have never said what a friend said to me. She said, “Stage 1? That is not even cancer, you had pre cancer, why do you tell people you had cancer”?. I told her to get her facts straight and that DCIS is pre cancer, this was in fact real, malignant, Stage 1 cancer.
An elderly, burnt out sounding, uncaring, cold, male radiologist gave me the results on the phone 3 days after my biopsy. I was stunned by the call. He was a stranger, who had not done the biopsy and he didn’t tell me why the lovely radiologist from 3 days prior, who had promised that she would be the one to give me the results on Thursday, wasn’t calling me instead. He said, “your biopsy was malignant….let me be clear this is cancer. You do have breast cancer”. Then he wanted me to repeat it back to him so that he was sure I was not in denial about it. There was no concern, no empathy in his voice, no tenderness at all. This was just another annoying phone call he needed to make and cross off of his to do list. I immediately called my PCP hoping for some warmth. When he called back I said, “my biopsy was positive I have breast cancer”. With a “so what” attitude he said, “did you want something from me”? He sounded like he was saying, “so why are you calling me about this?”. “Well…uh…” I thought to myself, “I guess I don’t want a damn thing from you“.
However, I’m really writing this to say that life has gotten so much better for me since that diagnosis as many people with cancer will tell you. It is the beginning of a new and better life for many, if found early. Of course it depends on the severity of the cancer, the location and the stage. Of course. That almost goes without saying. I felt so blessed to have caught it immediately. In fact, they had been watching that exact spot for 3 years. “What”!? I look back at earlier mammograms, 2010, 2011, 2012, “3:00 L Breast, blah, blah, blah, we are concerned, have her come back in 6 months”. I suppose they cannot remove every lesion when it’s still benign and I did move a few times during that time, so did not have consistency in my medical care, but I did have consistent mammograms. It was after an extremely stressful time that it became malignant. My father had just died and there had been turmoil in my life at work and other areas.
PLEASE don’t misunderstand. I know that I am fortunate compared to many. As a social worker I have heard countless stories of stage 2, 3 and 4 cancers of all kinds with mets, chemo treatments and I never had any of that. I had a lumpectomy and 7 weeks of radiation, 5x/ week. On the other hand, I cannot tell you how much it hurt when that person said “you didn’t even have cancer, your cancer was a pre cancer” and if that were true it would be one thing, but it wasn’t. People often do say all the wrong things but that is not what I intended to write about here.
Breast cancer, as you have heard from others or experienced yourself, was a tremendous blessing in my life. Cancer woke me up to many realities. Anyone who has gone through this will tell you that there are either constant thoughts afterward like, “it happened once, it can happen again” or “my body mutated into a cancerous mass so why wouldn’t it happen again?” Or “if the radiation zapped this part won’t the cancer grow outside of those boundaries since it’s unlikely to come back within that square that they radiated?” (so very close to the heart on the left side). The wake up call is about pending, looming death.
After all the treatments were over I was euphoric for months. The reason I went for that overdue mammogram was because a close friend had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and I remembered that I was behind schedule and needed to get it done. He is gone now. He died at 48 in 2014 and it was heartbreaking to all of us who knew him. After my diagnosis, we talked on the phone weekly and we called it our “cancer chat”. I knew I was very lucky that I caught it early. I felt ridiculous talking about my little stage one when he had mets and suffered so much with chemo, chest tubes and multiple admissions to the hospital. Mine was nothing compared to his. But he said it made him feel better to check on me to see how I was and we helped each other. He had felt ill for years and chose to take a non traditional route rather than get a medical diagnosis for several years. I am not sure that it made much difference, I think the end would have been the same either way. He walked around probably for years without knowing that he had lung cancer but he had symptoms.
I took that trip to France I always dreamed of after radiation was over and counted my blessings. I went with a choir to Rouen and Paris. It was my first trip to Europe. I sang my heart out in magnificent Cathedrals in France that summer. I enjoyed seeing my eldest son get married to my beautiful daughter-in-law and was thankful, thankful, thankful all the time. I contacted old, lost friends. I had visitors after the surgery, in my home. People were good, they were kind, they helped. I did the renovations in the house that I had wanted to do. I lost a job at that time but I gained a life. I went into private practice and became my own boss. I built my practice during radiation and it grew! The things we do, that we can’t believe we did, when we look back.
I came to terms with the most difficult issue in my life. My autistic son’s need for a future plan. What will he do when I’m gone? Where will he live? How will he function in the world? He was so dependent at 23 at the time. Now he is 26. He was terrified as I went through all of this because he knew that his future was so vague. Who would take care of him?
Fast forward 3 years and we are in a better place with this issue of planning for his future. It’s a complicated and convoluted road. Finding housing and services for an autistic adult who cannot manage independently is costly and there are few good options. We have a plan now. Since I wanted to move west I looked for programs in the state where I wanted to live because after cancer I decided that my needs mattered too. After 26 years of being a caretaker I have decided that my needs matter very much because if I put myself first I will be alive longer and both of my sons need me to be. There are people that hope that I will be around for awhile and so do I. I want my life to feel good and to be my own creation. So I’m making that happen and I’m making sure that my younger son has all the possible opportunities to become as independent as is possible in his case. He’ll attend a 2 year program that will help with that in the state that I want to move to. So we are moving int he right direction and deep down I know, it’s all because of cancer.
This is a topic that is rarely spoken about. Sometimes even after many years, a friendship cannot continue. One person grows in a different direction or too many incidents happen that are unacceptable to one or both people and the friendship no longer brings joy. To me, friendship should be a happy union of two people that grows with time and withstands all of the tests. There needs to be acceptance of flaws but underneath it all there needs to be love. One has to feel loved for who they are in order to gain from the friendship. I have noticed that there are some people that I outgrow and what was once tolerable isn’t anymore. I also know that others have let me go and yes, it hurts, and you always wonder why, but it’s best to stay neutral about the whole thing and remember what was pleasant and good in the friendship during it’s “lifetime”.
Some people keep their friends from high school and college but not all do. If you have moved often and lived in different places as I have, there isn’t a common ground with those who you once shared a job with or a town or an experience. Then there are those friends that seem to last forever and you come to cherish them more with time because of the longevity. There are friendships that were cut short by death and you never forget them, especially during the holidays or at times when you would have seen them. The world isn’t the same without them in it. That just shows how unique each one of us is and how we can be touched by a person who comes into our life. That must mean that we also touch others in ways that we don’t even know.
In my experience, we find activities early on in friendships that become a ritual for a period of time. You might be one of those people that have kept the same friends throughout your lifetime and keep up certain rituals with them, but I have travelled through many experiences and places and homes in such a short time and have known so many different people as a result.
I have come to value those people who have remained in my life through all the twists and turns. Especially those who “knew me when”. The rare person who has known me through decades of my life holds a special place.The ones who knew me when my children were young, or during or after my divorce are the most precious to me. Those who were part of the spiritual community I belonged to in NYC can never be replaced because of all that we went through together.
As we age we have memories to keep. No one really knows what they are unless we choose to talk about them. Even if we do try to explain, it’s so hard to convey what we feel or see of that memory. They are the precious gems that we store. They have no physical shape and cannot be stolen from us. Locked away in every person is a large storage room of memories to be sifted through from time to time. There might be photographs to memorialize them but as we look at photos we remember all the other details of what was going on at the time. Behind a seemingly happy family photo might be memories of turmoil and misery. Or we might discount all that and appreciate now what we didn’t at the time. We are ever evolving souls that morph and change and reinvent ourselves all the time. Some of us do that at faster rates than others but in the end, we’re all growing and moving toward something that is greater than ourselves. In the process we hit against other marbles, learn what we need to learn and then move on. What kind of marble are you? Do you mostly stay in one circle? Is your radius small or large? I believe I am a very colorful marble that cannot sit still for long and rolls in and out of circles always looking for its tribe. Perhaps someday I’ll find a community of similarly bright and colorful marbles who have rolled around the earth many times as well and then I can settle down and stop moving.
If you don’t mind English subtitled foreign films, there is such a sweet Japanese movie on Netflix called “Sweet Bean”. I did live in Tokyo for 3 years many years ago and came to appreciate their culture. They are loving people who value beauty in nature, spiritual topics and the meaning of life and friendship. Their movies often reflect that and also there is some obsession in the movies with death. I recommend this movie for those dealing with any aspect of the aging process at any stage of it. It is especially for those who might sometimes ask “What was the meaning of my life?” or “Did my life mean something to others?”. The ending is especially poignant. It’s close to 2 hours long so I watched it over a period of 2 days. Here is the link:
How can we change the trajectory of our life’s decisions? What can we still do today that will undue the damage from past decisions that we might regret? Conversely, what can we change today that will take us onto a new trajectory ending at a better place.
This is one of my favorite words in the English language. Trajectory.
the path followed by a projectile flying or an object moving under the action of given forces.
“the missile’s trajectory was preset”
synonyms: course, path, route, track, line, orbit
“the missile’s trajectory”
The reason I love this word is that it describes how we make decisions that lead us on a journey to an endpoint.
Or we decide to get off of that trajectory and take a different course of action.
Or by taking a different course of action we can reach the end point faster.
At “this stage of life”, between 50 and 70 years old, how can we change the trajectory of our life’s decisions? What can we still do today that will undue the damage from past decisions that we might regret? Conversely, what can we change today that will take us onto a new trajectory ending at a better place.
There is also this other reality in life. Things often don’t go according to plan. We have some control but not total control. No matter how hard we try, life can interfere with our plans. I googled the saying, “Man Plans and God Laughs”, to see where it came from. I was led to this Yiddish Proverb:
“Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht”.
Man plans and God laughs.
English equivalent; Man proposes, God disposes.
We can try to take control over our lives. By doing that we start out on a healthier track. Then something unexpected happens and we are thrown off course. Reality steps in and we have some challenges in order to keep going on the same trajectory. This is the conundrum and it is what makes life so interesting. We can choose how we will react to those challenges and whether or not we will let them interfere.How often have you said or a friend said, “I was doing so well, I was on course and then….”. We are frequently thrown off course, by a crisis, a break in routine (like a trip), an injury and other unexpected curve balls. It’s important to be resilient enough to get back on course whenever possible.
All we can do is to try to set up new trajectories for our lives as needed and expect that things won’t always go according to plan. When everything seems to go seamlessly we can be grateful. I am often sidetracked from my goals. There are so many distractions and staying motivated can be challenging. If we remember what our original idea was and where we thought we would end up then this image of a curved line from point A to point B might help us stay on track or get back to the original goal. Reaching goals doesn’t always equate with happiness. The excitement is in choosing the goal and working on it. There might be one moment where we feel a peak emotion (ie. reaching a goal weight, winning an award, getting a medal, etc) but all the rest is just daily life. The way we choose to use our time is somewhat up to us.
Younger people have many years to experiment with this. At our more advanced age we have hopefully come to know ourselves better. We know whether we are good at this or not and where our weaknesses and strengths lie. Some move through life wanting immediate gratification without a thought as to what the consequences are. Then there are those at the other extreme who might be overly cautious and don’t allow themselves to enjoy life or to take any risks at all. Knowing where you are on that spectrum helps. You don’t need to change and become a different person, instead you can respect how and who you are and work from there. Most goals stem from a desire to be happier once they are achieved. What goals did you set up in the past and reach? Did those achievements make you happier with your life? What can you learn about yourself from the successful ventures and the unsuccessful ones? What have you been really good at? What did you enjoy the most about those journeys?
You can use this image of a curved line stemming from the decisions you make now to help create your future.