When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, I knew that many women and men had received their own diagnoses before I did. Many others had felt the shock, the disappointment, and the worry that I was experiencing. Sadly, many others have also experienced it after me, and some for the second or third time.
I was fortunate that friends and acquaintances alike who had walked this path before me were willing to reach out and offer me support and hope along this journey. My sisters in the fight, as well as my loved ones who embraced me, have taught me how to empathize, how to advocate, and also how to pick up the pieces and continue living.
During treatment, adrenaline carries us, and gives us something tangible to hold. We go from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment, buoyed in between with medication, radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries, blood tests, diagnostic tools…whatever gets us from conversation to conversation with our medical team. Once the pace slows and we are left with our new reality, it’s a hard adjustment. I guiltily covet my time with the doctors and nurses that treated me. It’s as if being in their presence gives reassurance, as if their expertise is the key to preventing recurrence.
The empty space of life after cancer is unique. I feel blessed to have come through it, yet guilty for leaving others behind. About a year after my last surgery was complete, I realized that the fight is never really over. The world feels different now, because I am different now.
The principal at my children’s elementary school said something this week that continues to repeat in my head. He said that his first priority, even over education, is to ensure that the students in his school are safe. He meant not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
I get it. Without feeling safe, who is free to learn, to grow, to explore, or to thrive?
That is what cancer takes away from us. We were forced to take the red pill a la The Matrix. Our perception of life and love is shattered. Every relationship with a friend, family member, or acquaintance—even the most trusted and enduring—is tested. That includes our relationships with our own bodies, since they have betrayed us.
There are days I desperately want to recreate the safe feeling I felt before I found the lump. I want to wake up in the morning without cancer lurking in the back of my mind, or without its mental and physical reminders saddled to my chest, arms, and abdomen. I want to stop taking the medication and to avoid its side effects. I want to sleep without dreaming about hospitals, dying, and real breasts.
But there is no going back. The best I can do is take the knowledge I have now and live in the moment. I’ll take the extra few minutes to read one more book with the kids. I will linger a little longer to continue a conversation with someone I don’t see often. I’ll take the time to make personal connections, to try new things, and to put something good out into the world.
As I await test results that may affect my current treatment plan, I continue to participate in my daily life. The older three kids are in their first week of school, I have volunteer duties to perform, and Baby #4 requires my attention throughout the day. I’m writing, I’m creating, I’m laughing. Most importantly, I’m participating. I’m seeing the intent in every word, the joy in every smile, and the meaning within every interaction.
I may have gone down the rabbit hole, but I’m going to keep clawing back up to the surface.