Popular around the internet these days is this question (which offers a perfect opportunity for reflection): “What would you tell your younger self?”
And since it’s breast cancer awareness month, I’ve taken the opportunity to put my own personal spin on this issue and extend it to ask myself: “What would you tell your younger self after you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer?”
Not the usual question you see around, I know… but when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer at 34, you have as much to learn as anyone.Perhaps it’s a bit easier now as we see and hear about more and more younger women being diagnosed with breast cancer, and organizations like the Young Survival Coalition springing up to serve their needs.
Younger women with breast cancer do have unique and different issues than those of older women with the disease. But in 1988 when I was diagnosed, there existed neither the awareness nor the recognition, and that only added to my feelings of isolation, making my journey that much more difficult.
But in reality, my power was always there – I just perceived myself to be powerless. I muddled through and persevered; I tumbled and rolled and fell down but always got back up; bumping into walls and getting tangled up in mazes yet taking advantage of the opportunities to forge ahead through random clearings I’d discover along the way.
It is my hope that in sharing this, I can be helpful to you or someone you know who is facing breast cancer.
- After you hear “you have cancer,” take time to gather information and learn. It’s too easy to let your emotions take over and rush into action – and rushing is never wise, especially when making important medical decisions. Of course, you don’t want to wait too long, but realize that you do have time to do the research you need to come up with a plan of action. Thanks to the power of the Internet, there are so many reliable resources to turn to. Among many, here are some of the very best and most trusted: BreastCancer.org, the American Cancer Society, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
2. Explore all of your options. How far we’ve come in 30 years! When I was treated, the plan of action was close to a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s been a revolution in breast cancer research and treatment and now, experts know so much more than ever. They’re able to treat breast cancer individually down to the ability to analyze the genome of your own cancer rather than treat it as one single disease. You’re no longer limited to one or two options; now there’s an overwhelming number of treatments available. You might be interested in the piece I recently wrote for Parade Magazine on five exciting innovations in cancer screening and treatment.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. People will say and do the wrong things. (Oh, the stories I could tell…but I won’t.) Or they don’t say anything at all. Or they disappear. When it happened to me I chalked it up to everyone being too young to have much experience at handling these things. Or being uncaring. Or clueless. But despite that, it hurt so deeply. I took it personally. People close to me remained close, but those on the periphery took the path of least resistance and stayed away.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized they were probably just as frightened as me, and their actions stemmed from uncertainty rather than uncaring. Back then I stayed quiet (which is my nature, anyway); and hence they stayed away. (Interesting side note: I recently ran into someone I knew from those days. She told me although she had a feeling something was amiss, she had no idea what it was. She was shocked when I told her it was cancer.)
You may be thinking, “Why should that responsibility fall on my shoulders; I have enough to worry about right now!” And you’d be right. But in retrospect, if I had asked for what I wanted and for what I needed, people would have known; I’m fairly certain they would have gladly helped, even appreciated the guidance.
4. Take stock of ordinary pleasures. They exist everywhere, but when you’re dealing with a serious problem you tend to be blindsided and wrapped up in it – and they’re often obscured. Getting outside yourself and noticing things like the blooms on a flower, the full-cheeked squirrels busily running to stock up for winter or the smooth satiny texture of your sheets against your skin can counterweigh your sorrow and give your life back the richness that has gone missing.
5. Let breast cancer teach you. I wouldn’t say it was the best thing that ever happened to me; not at all. Breast cancer can be cruel, unpredictable and terrifying. But I will admit that having experienced this threat at a young age made me so much more aware of my vulnerability and the utter fragility of life; the type of wisdom usually reserved for those of advanced years. That allowed me to approach every day with gratitude and live my life with more meaning and passion. And I’m convinced I would not have become a writer (my second career, forged when I was 50) had it not been for my experience with illness.
6. Allow yourself to grieve. You are losing a part of yourself, both physically and spiritually. Your faith is shaken, your body is altered, and you’re rightly frightened. That’s what grief looks and feels like, and it is indeed real and painful. But with time, out of the pain of grief comes tiny seeds of promise that sprout into joy; feelings heightened by the fact they are special and not to be taken for granted.
Tip: Give yourself five minutes a day (or five minute increments throughout the day) to think about your cancer; then move on. This will allow you the time you need, while preventing you from letting it completely take over your life.
7. Open the door for cancer to exit. I saw breast cancer as an intruder moving in and taking over my life. Like an unwanted guest, it settled down and wouldn’t leave, simultaneously testing and pummeling me with its combination of pain and arrogance. But when it taught me what it needed me to know, the intruder slowly departed – leaving me with the gift of fortitude and gratitude that I might not have had otherwise.
8. Don’t compare yourself to other patients. I knew – or heard or read stories – about women who didn’t make it, and that automatically sent me into a dizzying spiral of depression and fear, convinced I’d follow the same path. Until, that is, time moved on, and I saw that it wasn’t me. Each year I could exhale a bit more. My oncologist (a wonderfully compassionate man) set my thinking straight by insisting that “Every single case is different. What happens to one person does not mean it will happen to you.”
On the other hand, pay attention to – and gain strength from – the women who have already gone through breast cancer and came through successfully. Those were the stories that bolstered my hope and optimism.
9. Plan for the future. I refused to let my husband talk about anything that involved planning for more than a few months in advance. I was too afraid to get excited about his proposed plans to travel, get tickets to a show, or fantasize about retirement. Instead, I closed down and wouldn’t listen or even engage. But eventually as I grew more confident in my health, I realized that planning things for the future offers a ray of hope; a way to move forward and have something – life! – to look forward to.
10. Move beyond thinking of yourself as a cancer patient. Here’s where I did something right: After my surgery and while I was going through chemo, I continued to go to the gym and exercise. I needed to live as normal a life as I could, refusing to surrender to an identity as cancer patient. So what if I covered my bald head with a wig and had diminished energy; I got out there and was part of the living, which in turn made me feel more alive and confident. And as it turns out (this was not known 30 years ago; in fact I was discouraged from exercising back then), regular exercise is not only valuable to boost your mood, but it’s key in reducing your risk of breast cancer and subsequent risk of recurrence should you get it.
This is me shortly after finishing chemo. My hair grew back in with the same curly texture as before (but I couldn’t wait for it to grow!)
And this is me, a few years later, happy to have my long hair back! (Of course, age has changed all that perfect curly texture now…but that’s fine with me 🙂