I know you can hardly believe that I’m talking to you — that YOU are a cancer patient. Unbelievable, I know. It took me a long time, too, to truly identify myself as a cancer patient (because these things happen to someone else, right?), but as it turns out, in the future when someone asks you if you have cancer anymore, you will be reluctant to say no. Go figure.
One year ago today, I, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and on this first anniversary of my diagnosis — or on my first cancerversary as they ridiculously say in the cancer world — I wanted to welcome you to the club. It’s a club that no one wants to join, and I have to be honest. Initiation sucks. But membership lasts a lifetime. (I didn’t make that up. It’s like a motto or something. This club is legit and stuff.)
Since you are now a part of my posse (I’ll teach you the secret handshake and give you your code name later, but you should know now that chest bumps are strictly prohibited.), I will impart some of my infinite breast cancer wisdom to you.
…uh, just kidding. I don’t have this thing figured out either, but I do want to pass on a few things I learned along the way to maybe make this easier for you.
First, though, I want to say that I am sorry this is happening to you. When I think back exactly one year, what I remember is fear. Unadulterated panic. A total loss of control. I know it feels like someone is holding a gun to your head. For days, weeks, months on end. You are an endless supply of adrenaline and grief. If you could somehow separate yourself from this body that so betrayed you, you would, but instead, you feel trapped inside of it.
It’s painful for me to remember how that felt, and I want you to know that you won’t feel like this forever. The emotions dull with time and, for me, with medicine. I’m not going to push drugs on you (because you are probably already sick of having to say no to drugs. I’ve never had more marijuana offers in all my life because people either think it’s hilarious or that cannabis will truly cure your cancer. Ugh, neither.) What I will say is that there is no shame in anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants. This shit is scary. Uncertainty is daunting. And meds don’t have to be forever.
I also want to save you some trouble and tell you that this isn’t your fault. Intellectually, you know this, but you can’t figure out why this is happening. In my search for THE WHY, my favorite doctor said, “I’ve asked myself that question about a lot of my patients, especially younger ones like you, and what I’ve come to is that shit happens.”
Shit happens. It sucks to be on the shit end of this stick, but sometimes, shit happens. This is one steaming hot, high pile of shit, but it’s definitely not your fault.
Okay, as my first real piece of advice, I want to urge you to stay offline for a while (except for my blog, duh) because I’ve often found it to induce more fear than give reassurance. Bad outcomes are highlighted, and in much greater detail, online because who continues to blog or visit breast cancer message boards with great outcomes? The people with the stories we long to hear are busy living their lives. Women who have gone on to live normal, healthy, long lives aren’t often visiting or running breast cancer sites because breast cancer is not controlling their lives anymore.
But women do go on to live wonderful, long, full lives.
And because we’ve all seen how chemo goes down in the movies, I also know that you’re worried about the treatments ahead. To be honest, they weren’t as bad as I had imagined. Not a walk in the park but totally doable. And just so you know, I didn’t puke once and my eyelashes have already regained their former glory. Hallelujah and amen.
I have to warn you, though,that people will start talking to you about your attitude a lot, which is weird because when they had the flu last month, never once did you tell them to “keep a positive attitude” or to “look on the bright side” or to “stay strong.” Instead you let them be sick, called to check on them, and brought soup, 7 Up, and a magazine.
The flu and cancer are definitely not the same — duh — but my point is that it’s okay to wallow sometimes. It’s okay to be scared, sad, angry, confused, and generally not so sunny. You need to feel these things in order to move through this. Besides, it’s humanly impossible to feel 100% positive while going through an early, chemotherapy induced menopause in a month flat. (Those not in the club don’t know nothin’ about that.)
As easy as it would make things, attitude does not cure cancer. Otherwise, we’d all be the happiest damn cancer patients you’ve ever seen. We would rival Walmart greeters and kindergarten teachers. People would want to get cancer to see what all the happiness was about and because a good joke is as easy a cure as any. In my dreams, my friends, and probably yours too.
In real life, don’t let the pressure of being a “good” cancer patient drown you.
What I did learn about attitude is that while it didn’t change the cancer inside of me, it changed my cancer experience. So my most important piece of advice for you is to BE OPEN. Be open to making this experience as good as you can. It’s happening anyway so why not?
Be open to finding the humor. (ALWAYS look for the humor in the cancer world. You need a laugh, girl, and maybe, like, a margarita and a massage from Ryan Gosling.) Be open to laughing when your baby tugs at your hair while you feed her a bottle and repeatedly ends up with tiny, adorable fistfuls of it. (Oh, just me?) Find the humor in that, lint roll your head again…and then cry in your pillow later that night because, like I said, that’s okay too.
Choose to change the script from “Why me?” to “Could this be any more ridiculous?” So yes, you might be flashing your ninth stranger of the day, but in that case, doesn’t it kind of feel like Mardi Gras? Instead of collecting beads, you’re collecting hospital bracelets.
Okay, that’s a stretch, but trust me, make that stretch. You will end up laughing at things you would have otherwise cried through, and when you look back, you will remember these good times too. You will remember laughing when the plastic surgeon insinuates that your best girlfriend is your lesbian lover. You will remember laughing with your husband on the first day of chemo while taking bets on what mutant powers you’re about to get. You will remember laughing when the hospital sends you a friendly reminder to schedule a mammogram (It’s been a year, afterall.) and you seriously consider making an appointment just so you can open your gown, hand them your prosthetics, and watch their faces.
There’s plenty to cry about too — you already know this — and you will remember the tears too. In those broken moments, you will come to know yourself though. Just don’t get stuck there. Be open to what’s around you. The hilarity as well as the tragedy. The blessings on top of your bad luck.
Be open to your friends and family. Letting people help me was one of the harder things about cancer, and I wish I would have done a better job at it. You need the help, and your friends and family really want to help. It gives them power in an otherwise helpless situation, and it gives them a way to show you they love you without really having to say it . If they are there to help, let them. (But go ahead and buy new underwear now because there will be lots of hands in your laundry and you are more fabulous than your current underwear suggests. I know it.)
I don’t know what the future holds — for me or for you — and that’s the hardest part. I do know that I can’t believe it has already been a year for me. I can honestly say that, although that was one mother effer of a year, it flew by. When I think about you, the newly diagnosed, what I really want to do is give you a hug and tell you that you can do this. It’s not bigger than you. No matter what happens.