My husband’s warm, brown eyes looked at me over his homemade garden soup. “If you had a choice, knowing what you know now, would you have breast cancer again?”
Dinner was our time for asking tough questions. But this one was brutal. I thought about our first fears - that this was an aggressive, lethal form of cancer that might only leave me months to live. The pathology reports surprised not only us but my oncologists as well. And the second pathology report, after my mastectomy, was even better than the first. Even though the cancer was becoming more invasive, it was still classified as DCIS and had not spread outside the tumor. The surgeon removed seven lymph nodes, all of which were benign. There would be no need for radiation and, more importantly, no chemotherapy! But the results made me realize that the speed at which my surgery happened was absolutely necessary. It could have been much, much worse.
When Peter asked me this question, he meant it in a, “It’s A Wonderful Life” kind of way.
In one of my all-time favorite movies, Jimmy Stewart gets a second chance at life. When his character, George Bailey, faces bankruptcy and realizes he is worth more dead than alive, he tries to kill himself but is stopped by an angel who shows him what the world would look like if he died – how many people his life impacted.
It's been almost a year since my diagnosis and in that time I have felt just like George Bailey. The outpouring of love, prayers, gifts, visits, help and encouragement that flowed to me from hundreds of people was astonishing. It brought me to tears many times. Facing the reality of death also opened my eyes to the wonder of this world. Now every moment counts and the value of these loving relationships is a priority.
Would I willingly go through the pain and suffering of this cancer experience again so I could comprehend how much love surrounded me? So I could be re-awakened to the beauty of Creation and enjoy each moment fully?
I just stared at Peter.
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really?”
This has been a life-changing experience.
I never want to go back to the "before-cancer" me.
But even though I gained so much, I realize I lost more than just a breast.
None of us wants to have cancer. It evokes terror whenever it is proclaimed. If a doctor tells us we have ‘it’ we certainly don’t want to know how bad ‘it’ is.
We expect physicians (our appointed gods of medicine) to heal us completely.
We run from reality, we dive into our work, our family and even our sense of humor.
This was the breast way for me to fight the mental exhaustion of seeing that constant flashing neon word.
“Cancer” was always the last thing I would think of before going to sleep and the first thing on my mind when I awoke.
But even though my physical scars have healed, the teeth-gritting pain all but a distant memory - my emotional scars still bleed, creeping into my dreams and troubling my thoughts.
It has been therapeutic to talk to other women who have had breast cancer. But, at times, I feel awkward discussing my experience as it doesn’t compare to what they have endured.
One woman I met in the past year has had breast cancer three times - each worse than before. The first was just a lumpectomy and she was declared “cancer-free.” But a year later it was back, more aggressive and invasive. What was left of her breast needed to be removed and she was resigned to rounds of radiation. The last was a radical mastectomy with a bonus - six months of chemotherapy. She had over a dozen lymph nodes removed and now has constant pain, swelling down her entire arm and needs to wear an elastic sleeve to help her circulation.
I only had one breast sliced off and seven lymph nodes cut out. I didn’t even have much swelling under my arm. My surgeon said that was “remarkable.” This woman said it was “unfair.”
My treatment was too easy. My life - never really threatened...yet.
I feel guilt-ridden, that I didn’t have to fight harder, longer.
But what I went through terrified me.
And it could happen again.
My breast MRI report stated I have "an elevated risk for neoplastic breast cancer," and my medical team want exams every six months.
For me (and experts say for most people) discussing your cancer experience with a trusted friend is one of the best ways to bring emotional healing. I have such a friend and healing has truly happened because of it.
I've also found it especially helpful to talk with other women who have had breast cancer. Unfortunately, for some, it's an experience that is still too difficult to discuss.
My writing partner, Methodius, rightly said people, “...don't want to talk about it with you because it reminds them of what they have gone through either personally or with a loved one. Cancer not only divides cells, it divides friends, and family and perfect strangers.”
It’s so easy to let disease divide your friendships or define you – cancer especially so.
I am working at using my experience to bring people together.
I refuse to let disease define me!
“Cancer” has been my wake-up call.
My priorities have purposefully changed.
I take time away from work to watch the silvery snow swirl to the ground.
I feed the deer that populate our property and watch, as they gather at dusk, to eat grain out of our pumpkin shell by the garden.
I put off deadlines for a family party or a phone call from a friend.
I take every opportunity to tell those close to me that I love them. It seems like my love for others has only grown deeper during this past year.
Peter and I walk the sunsets through our wooded fields.
We watch lightening kiss the ground during sudden summer storms.
We hike through the snow on the frozen creek bed, jumping the beaver dams and tracking the wildlife.
It is exciting when Peter phones me from the laneway with one hushed word on his breath, “Moose!”
The wonder all around has captivated my freshly awakened senses. From a disease that could still cause my death, I have been given a second life. Every day is now my first because I know it might be my last.
Breast cancer has changed me for the better, forever. And nothing will take that away.
Very beautifully expressed, Doris. Speaking from personal experiences, hardships do change ones character, setting what's important in life, as you expressed so well. God has a reason for allowing such experiences in our lives, but only those who have lived through crisis, know and appreciate the divine benefits.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments, Marg. It's hard to go through a major crisis but I'm glad to have had this one change my character for the better. That was God's doing - He woke me up again! Strange thing is, even though I'm thankful for this wake-up call, I'm not begging for more of them :)!Delete
Great post,Doris. I echo your thoughts/feelings in so many ways. Blessings, MarciaReplyDelete
I know you have suffered more than me, Marcia, so I appreciate your comments. My prayer for you is for health and many blessings in the years to come. May your writing flourish. You are an inspiration to me!Delete
I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could e-mail me?
Sure, you could send me your email or just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.Delete
Amazing blog and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comment. I'm really glad you learned a lot from reading my blogs. I want them to be informative but also written in an interesting manner.ReplyDelete
Wow, Doris! What a great post. I love your outlook, and totally get why you said yes! I feel the same about my experience with ME/CFS... It has changed me and opened my eyes, I'd not want to go back to the previous me.ReplyDelete