When nervous, I break out the comedy. It’s a family trait; my dad and my brothers do the same thing. We go into full stand-up mode when tension gets thick. I’m not sure how my mother has dealt with it over the years, and I suspect she considers all four of us annoying because of it. It’s tough to be the only one in the room that can be serious in a crisis.
I was a regular comedian while giving birth to my children. When the epidural kicked in with Baby #2, the delivery room was so loud with laughter that we were shushed by some nurses on the delivery floor. Apparently when anesthesia took hold of me on the day of mastectomy surgery, I tried to convince my surgeons to fist fight before removing my breast tissue. Just yesterday I was stressing out in the shower, thinking of all I had to accomplish and manage throughout the day. I yawned while smacking the conditioner bottle’s pump, and squirted a full amount of hair product into my mouth. I even amuse by accident, when I’m the only one around to enjoy the slapstick.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer on October 1, 2013 gave me a great opening line when sharing my story. There isn’t a breathing adult in the United States that doesn’t know October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here I was, beginning this journey with a large dose of irony and a ready-made punch line. I couldn’t have asked for a better set-up.
There isn’t anything wrong with finding strength in humor. I’m sure it’s better than the alternative, which would be to struggle under the weight of misery. Pushing through the shock of diagnosis and the rigors of treatment can be arduous, but seeing the ridiculousness of the situation has kept me humble.
I could have been humiliated during my first—and last—mammograms, with my milk-dense breasts unleashing their contents like exploding water balloons. Instead, I laughed and made an analogy to a World Series winners’ locker room celebration. To say it was a mess would be a drastic understatement.
After being in the MRI machine for 45 minutes, the technician asked me if I was okay. She said some people feel claustrophobic during the procedure. I told her that it was the worst experience of my life, because they were piping easy listening radio into the earphones and I couldn’t escape Kenny G. It was a nightmare.
I could have mourned my long, curly hair when it fell out. Instead, I told everyone who would listen how Baby #2 was concerned he wouldn’t be able to tell me apart from my brother once I was bald.
I didn’t cry after my breasts and ovaries were removed. Instead, I comforted my husband by telling him, “Well, I guess I’ve gone Vegan. No milk, no eggs…” (That one has bombed on occasion. For a while, the generous volunteers who were cooking for our family were in a panic to change menus, not realizing I was made of Vegan, not living as one.)
I had a great streak of giggles and glee going by the time chemotherapy and radiation wrapped up. I was flying on the adrenaline (and steroids) that we survive on during crisis. More surgeries were on the horizon, and I was pulling from the bottom of the reserve for strength. I didn’t realize how close to a breaking point I was.
That changed when the Radiologist suggested I attend an event that the hospital was sponsoring called Unite for Her Wellness Day.
“No support groups,” I firmly stated. “I’m doing fine, I’m adjusting fine. The last thing I need is to hear about other women’s heartbreak.”
She assured me that the organization offered free services that I would find useful, and that networking with some other patients would be beneficial.
“They won’t know what to do with me,” I blustered, “because I’ll be so much younger than most of them, and because I’m doing fine.”
She gave me a smile that conveyed a little pity, a little tolerance, and a lot of the fact that I was an idiot.
It wasn’t a day of support group activities, but I did meet other women on similar paths as my own. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how reassuring that was. It was affirming to sit in a room with dozens of women who understood, who didn’t judge, and who looked like me. We ranged in age and represented many different ethnic groups, but our faces contained the same truths.
Half way through my day with Unite for Her, joking around and presenting myself as someone who had it all together, I broke down. I was in a Yoga session, and the instructor was speaking about how meditation and quieting of the mind can be healing. “Quiet” isn’t an adjective much associated with me, and it certainly isn’t something I experience in my mind. As I sat in a chair and was coaxed into closing my eyes, I concentrated on my breathing. The first thing I found in the silence was anger. Up until that point, I had skirted around and away from it so often that its fiery-hot presence in the moment caught me off guard. Seconds later, my face was wet with tears and a sob escaped my throat.
I’ve made plenty of jokes since then about how Yoga made me cry before I ever twisted into a pretzel. That emotional release had been building up for months, and I had been afraid of it. While Unite for Her gave me many things that day—including funding for acupuncture, massage, Reiki, yoga, nutritional counseling, personal counseling, and advice on a slew of other topics—what it really did was teach me not to fear myself. Before then, I wasn’t capable of embracing the entire experience of being a breast cancer patient. Without doing so, I wasn’t working through it. Before being empowered to exercise some control over the situation, I didn’t allow myself to be human. Sue Weldon, Unite for Her’s founder, spoke of how women can be driven to nurture and mother others and not themselves. I had been pushing away my own vulnerabilities to be strong for those around me, not recognizing that, in doing so, I was creating weakness in myself.
Unite for Her gave me a list of trained professionals that would help me take control of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. With the funding they provided, I was able to manage my physical pain through acupuncture and my stress through massage. The nutritional counseling told me what to do with those 8 weeks of free vegetables provided from Lancaster Farm Fresh, and the information about beauty and household products was invaluable.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is upon us. If you consider donating to a “Pink” charity to raise awareness or to research funding, remember that the women (and men) who are on this journey could use your support, too. Breast cancer can metastasize and in any form it is not an “easy” cancer (there is no such thing). Some of us don’t survive it. Those of us who live through it are permanently damaged and changed in drastic ways, like anyone else who has been through a traumatic event. We may be laughing on the outside, but there is more to us on the inside.