A Breast Reconstruction Patient's Journey

Pamela’s Story: Part 2

The following is the second chapter in a 5-part series by Pamela K. She shares her experience with breast cancer diagnosis and breast reconstruction surgery with Dr. Christopher Hess in Fairfax, Virginia. Click here to see all chapters from Pamela’s story.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of My Cancer Diagnosis

It’s a Strange Thing Having Cancer

What does it feel like to walk around knowing you have cancer? I found it exhausting, confusing, frustrating, and, at times, exhilarating. If you’re walking a similar road, maybe you can relate. These are excerpts from my journal written about a month after my diagnosis:

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” – Vivian Greene

“It’s a strange thing about having cancer: Nothing around you changes, and yet, everything is different – for me, for my family, for others who care about me. The sun comes up and goes down, the moon comes out and fades away, I go to work, cuddle my son, help him with his homework, eat, work out, sleep, love my husband, but it is all different now. I have this ‘other thing’ doing all these things with me – my cancer. Wherever I go, whatever I do, there is it, always with me. My last thought when I go to bed at night, and my first thought in the morning. Inescapable.

It reminds, in a way, of being pregnant. I remember how for those 9 months that I carried my son, Ethan, I was never alone. He was with me as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning, and my breathing would rock him to sleep at night. I remember waking up the morning after he was born and feeling so…lonely. I was physically disconnected from my little boy for the first time in almost a year. And I felt sad.

This time, though, I’ll be only too happy to be rid of what I am carrying inside me, my cancer. When I wake up from my cancer surgery, I will be ‘alone’ again, and this time, I will be deliriously happy about it. No more cancer in my body – not from that moment on, not ever, I hope.

For the past many weeks now, whenever I’ve looked in a mirror, I’ve heard a voice in my head saying, incredulously: ‘You have cancer. You’re sick. Wow. How is this possible?’ But I’m not allowing this anymore. Now, I stop myself and take the emphasis off of being sick. Instead, I tell myself enthusiastically: “You are a cancer survivor. You are strong, whole, healthy, and cancer free.” It’s my new affirmation, every time I think about having cancer. And since, I’m sorry to say, I think about it a lot, I am certain the frequent, regular use of this affirmation will be an important part of my cancer story.”

The Ecstasy of Fearlessness

Now for the oddly exhilarating part of having cancer: In the weeks and months after my diagnosis, my cancer became like a “get out of jail free” card to me. I found my outgoing, extroverted self was amplified. Suddenly, out of my mouth came things I often thought, but would never actually say – to my boss, my colleagues, my friends, even to total strangers – nothing mean or hurtful, mind you. I was just putting bigger, bolder ideas and opinions out there, and saying warmer, kinder things to some folks than might be considered wholly appropriate — and I was doing it left and right.

My boss commented that he could tell cancer was tearing down filters in my head. He’s a very smart, insightful man, and he was absolutely right about the disease’s effect on me. It was freeing. There were moments when I felt downright giddy over my lack of inhibition; it was like being drunk, AND still having all your wits about you – a powerful combination. Because, really, once you have cancer, what’s left to be afraid of? What’s life going to do to you that could be any bigger or badder? (OK, I can actually think of a number of things in my case, since I’m not a terminal cancer patient…but you see the point, I’m sure.)

The Agony of Your Body Betraying You

Of course, even as I embraced the empowering aspects of the cancer, I still hated that this pox had been visited on my house and disrupted and upset my family, my friends, my colleagues in this way. It’s wasn’t just me that had cancer; everyone who loved me, was my friend, or worked with me, had to suffer with it, too, in some way.

Sometimes, when I would feel particularly frustrated about having this disease, I’d imagine myself clawing the cancer out of my breast with my bare hands, like some wild animal, primal, desperate to get it out, out, out at any cost. And in my head, I would hear a shrill voice screaming, “I DON’T WANT THIS!! I DON”T WANT THIS!! I DON’T WANT ANY OF THIS!!! I JUST WANT IT TO GO AWAY!!!”

And then I would remind myself how lucky I was that this was caught so early, that I had so many options, and so much support, and that I am, generally, a strong, positive person: When life hands me lemons, I find a way to make lemonade. And my sanity would return. I would remind myself often in these days that, while I might have cancer, cancer did not, would not ever, have me.

It was around this time that a friend sent me a note telling me about a card she’d seen. Inside, it said, simply: You > cancer. I love this, and I have made it my own. Me > cancer. I think about this every morning and every night. It is a compact, powerful equation that helps keep me strong. If you’re on your own cancer journey, I hope it will help you, too.

Resources

Here are books and web sites that I found extremely helpful when I was first diagnosed with cancer.

The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty by Jimmie C. Holland, M.D., Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Sheldon Lewis.

Cancer: 50 Essential Things To Do by Greg Anderson

http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/default.htm : Web MD’s Breast Cancer Health Center

www.caringbridge.org: If you have a number of people you want to communicate with about your health challenge, consider setting up a CaringBridge web site. It’s an easy way to update lots of people at one time, and it lets those people stay in touch with you by posting messages in your “guest book.”

Call 703.752.6608 to schedule your consultation with Dr. Hess.
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