Oh, the things I’ve learned as a breast cancer patient.
I went to my first support group in February 2015, about five months after my diagnosis and four months into my six-month chemo regimen. It was the first time I heard women talking about how hard the end of treatment can be. Who would have thought that diagnosis and debilitating chemo and terrifying surgery would NOT be the hardest parts for so many women? Not me. Not until that first support group. And not until I experienced the struggle firsthand.
A few weeks ago, I picked up After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment by Hester Hill Schnipper. Though still technically in treatment (now with just one week of radiation to go!), I felt better physically, but my emotional life was twisting me in knots. It felt time to read the book that had been recommended to so many women before me in support group.
My first night with After Breast Cancer, my internal voice screamed, “I’m not crazy! HA! I’M NOT CRAZY!” (I’ve debated that often in the weeks that have followed, especially as Tamoxifen has turned me into a swinging pendulum of “I’m so anxious I’m going to explode” to “Hey, life is great!” to “RAAAAAAGE” to “I’ve never cried so much in my life and still, I can’t stop crying.” Good times—for all of us in my household.)
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from Schnipper—and from firsthand experience as a breast cancer patient:
- The majority of women (that surprised me) have the hardest time after treatment.
- As women with breast cancer slowly return to our “normal lives,” intense overwhelm is so common, it’s to be expected. (Can you hear my, “I’m not crazy!” voice?)
- The rule of thumb is that it takes women at least the length of time to regain our physical well-being as was the duration of our treatment. Schnipper says to count the months between the day of diagnosis and the last day of chemo, post-surgery drugs, radiation—whatever the end of treatment might be—and expect at least that long to feel our old, physical selves. (I was diagnosed on October 22, 2014 (one day after my son turned 9) and finish treatment next Thursday, August 6 (one day before my 11th wedding anniversary), so by next May I might be “back to normal?”)
- Schnipper says it takes even longer to recover emotionally.
- She also says friends and family are following a different calendar, one that expects that, “Yay, you’re all better now!” Support tends to fade. Expectations tend to return more quickly than we’re ready to meet them. This, of course, can intensify feelings of overwhelm, isolation and, well, crazy.
- Some studies show that patients who have undergone chemotherapy score significantly lower on cognitive functions even ten years post treatment. (Sweet. So my frequent inability to retrieve words and form a coherent sentence just might stick around for a-long-while longer.)
- “What sexuality?” (Enough said?)
In an earlier post, I wrote about the fact that experience brings knowledge. I never expected to amass so much knowledge about breast cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, mastectomies, breast-reconstruction.
I never expected to feel my mortality so acutely at such a young age.
But neither did I ever expect to feel as loved as I’ve felt over the past year. I never expected to test the power of gratitude as I have and to learn firsthand that it does in fact dampen fear and loss. I never expected to feel such a deep, unending strength, a strength that, no matter what happens, will get me through to the other side (of life, of this post-treatment struggle, of whatever “other sides” I might face), feeling whole.