It has been 12 years since my diagnosis with breast cancer and I am doing fine, but the experience changed my life. I never thought I would be a part of breast cancer statistics. After all, there was no cancer of any kind in my family, but at the age of 47 while raising three wonderful children and having just celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, my annual mammogram was labeled as "abnormal."
It wasn't the first time I'd been called back for further testing, which in the past had turned out to be false alarms. This time my gut told me the outcome would be different. After a few more mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI's, consultations and tears, my diagnosis was DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ). If diagnosed early enough, this can have an excellent prognosis. I was also lucky because my lymph nodes were completely clear and free of cancer cells.
I opted to have a mastectomy and reconstruction. The surgery and immediate recovery was successful, but because they removed the latissmus dorsi muscle from my back to reconstruct my new breast, I have had numerous neuromuscular issues and weakness on the right side of my body -- a constant reminder of my past. Another reminder is the degree of deformity and uncomfortable feelings about my sexuality. It helped to have a supportive husband who understood I was the same person as before. I remember feeling so unattractive after my surgery, but my surgeon and husband were encouraging and repeatedly told me I was beautiful and to wear provocative clothes whenever possible, first around the house and then out. Now I make it a habit. Approaching my 60th birthday I care less and less what people think. I want to feel good about myself and what matters most is how you feel on the inside.
Another difficult part of having had breast surgery is the complete loss of physical sensation on the mastectomy side. You are left with no erotic sensation at all. The nipple and surrounding area becomes numb. According to my plastic surgeon, over time, some women do get sensation back, but this never happened to me. I have learned to accommodate these changes. I have found that growing older means having the ability to be adaptive.
In order to maintain a sense of emotional sanity during the early post-operative days, I focused my attention toward inner healing. I spoke with a nurse therapist who worked with breast cancer patients to help us cope with the psychological adjustment of losing a breast. From the first appointment onward, she walked me through something called Creative Visualization and each night I would listen to a healing audio program. She also encouraged me to take one day at a time and focus on my own needs. I think this is good practice for all life changes. Positive thinking and meditation are also so very important.
Five years after my initial breast cancer diagnosis, I was hit with a second type of cancer -- multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer). The doctors say it was unrelated, but part of me believes it was. I feel as if I might have "bred the cancer" in that I kept a lot inside of me. Even if this is just my imagination, over the years, I have learned to more openly express my feelings. Overall, this has only provided me with positive health benefits.
As a former nurse and current writer I frequently teach and advocate journaling and writing, as a critical component of emotional healing. I've been journaling since the age of 10 when my mother gave me my first journal. These days, I call my journal a writer's notebook and it is where I can be honest with myself, share my sentiments, passions, thoughts, fears and whatever else crosses my mind.
Many women have used journals to record their cancer experiences, either to share with their families or to refer back to at a later date. Some of these journals or books that have been published include those by Audre Lorde, May Sarton, Betty Rollin, Rose Kushner, Hilda Raz, and Elizabeth Berg, to name a few.
Even though the incisions healed and I returned to my routines, the emotional and physical scars of having had breast cancer remain with you for the rest of your life. When filling out medical forms you are asked about a history of cancer, and once again I am reminded of my past. When I go for a massage, I have to explain scars in unusual places. When my kids ask if there's any family history of cancer, I need to explain their risks. When a friend or relative faces similar demons, I might be called upon to be supportive and painful memories are revisited.
I have learned and inform others that emotional healing usually takes longer than physical healing. Surrounding oneself with those who think positively and who don't bring you down is very important. Cancer still holds a stigma, but maybe not as much as it did years ago. As I reflect now, during the pink ribbon month of October, I see that it is probably not a good idea for me to dwell on the fact that I had breast cancer, yet it is also important not to forget it either.