I went to my first breast cancer support group last night. I’ve never been one for organized group activities—guided tours, support groups, church. Even committing to scheduled exercise classes proves challenging for me. So it’s taken almost four months to get myself to this support group that meets at the (amazing) Cancer Connection just a few blocks from my house.
I am so glad I finally went. I spent 90 minutes hearing my own feelings (which have often felt odd and wrong) reflected back to me in the words of seven other women with—or just on the other side of—breast cancer.
As emotionally “good” as I felt in November and December, there was also a lingering guilt. A what is wrong with me that I have breast cancer and I’m happy? kind of guilt. And then, as I started to feel better physically, the “what’s wrong with me voice” intensified. What’s wrong with me that my emotional state is plummeting now that I’m feeling better physically? What’s wrong with me that I’m mourning the loss of those earlier months when I was so debilitated? What’s wrong with me that I’m in no rush for this whole experience to be over?
Last night, one woman after the next expressed what I have been feeling. To my right, a woman about my age talked about the mixed emotions she feels as she faces her final chemo infusion and the end of her cancer treatment next week. Now what? She wondered. To her left, another young woman toward the end of radiation and cancer treatment echoed similar sentiments. She talked about how all these appointments have become her routine, and that in some strange way, she’s going to miss them. She’s going to miss seeing the same nurses every week. Miss the attention and the care she receives from the people in her life.
I talked about how I don’t want my life to go back to normal, back to the way it was. That I want to be changed by this experience. That I feel such a sense of loss when I feel the old slipping back in; such mourning when I think about all of this being over and forgotten.
Across from me, a woman who finished treatment in the last several months said her friends want and expect her to be fine now, and she feels like she’s just starting to grieve. She said that listening to the rest of us talk, she realizes that the reason she’s struggling emotionally is because everything and everyone around her has gone back to normal, but that is the opposite of what she wants.
The what is wrong with me? voice slipped right away in that room.
A friend of mine who spent last year in treatment for breast cancer told me some months ago about a photograph hanging on her fridge. It’s of her and her two daughters when she was in the middle of chemo. “I’ll never take that picture down,” she said. “I never want to forget that time.”
I’ve clung to that story in the last several weeks, as I’ve started to feel better physically and less so emotionally. And when my friend and I walked last week, I asked more about it, hoping that my desire to hold tight to this cancer experience was something she might understand. (After all, it’s not what one is “supposed” to feel. We’re supposed to push through to the other side, as quickly as possible. Surrender to a crappy year, then move on, grateful it’s over.)
My friend very much understands—very much knows—the desire to hold on. And as I’ve just discovered, so do many other women with breast cancer. So it turns out that my feelings aren’t as strange as I thought. (Suleika Jaquad, who writes about her leukemia in an award-winning New York Times’ column, is someone else who complicates the concept of “getting back to normal” post cancer.)
I suppose this is a reason for support groups. Maybe I’ll sign up for a guided tour somewhere and even start going to church. 🙂