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.

20 comments on “Dear newly diagnosed breast cancer patient:”

  1. That exactly summed up how the women with cancer that I work with feel each and every day. Thank you so much for sharing your experience so honestly – and with the humour thrown in! I think I laughed and nodded my head the whole way through. Keep sharing lovely! There are so many others out there that need to hear it xo

  2. You rocked it, yet again.
    I have often said, that this isn’t a club anyone wants to join, but I have yet to meet a member who isn’t fabulous! Some of the most amazing women have been through this. There is strength in numbers…..
    xoxoxo

  3. Although not newly diagnosed- it’s been seven months since my surgery, and I am finishing up chemo, it was really great to hear those thoughts. Thank you for the love and care.

    • Yes, they do.

      It’s funny. I remember happy about going through chemo in the summer and fall because it was less depressing.

  4. Thank you. Thank you for writing this. I’m about a month into this and I’m looking for mom’s with kids that are fighting this fight. I’m looking for someone like me to is definately too young for this. Thank you for sharing. I will be subscribing. Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone.

  5. Thank you for your blog and honesty. I am 6 out of 16 treatments through this mess (surgery and radiation to follow) and really needed to find a blog written by somebody not stage IV and a mother in her 30s. I read all of your posts either laughing, crying, nodding along or all three combined. I’m glad to read you’re doing well.

    • Thank you! I don’t have much time to give to this blog, but YOU are the reason I keep going. I know how particular our story is, and I wanted to find someone like me too. Thanks for the comment and reminding me of the reason I share.

  6. “because these things happen to someone else, right?” that sentence got me, I have an aunt who is having treatment right now because of her breast cancer, and while growing, seeing her so healthy and athletic i never imagined that one day she would have a breast cancer. And the more incredible thing that she is always smiling and so joyful while i always worry about her because she is like a mother tome.
    Thank you so much for your blog and for sharing this.

  7. Thank you for this post. One of your friends, Erin, directed me to your blog. I’m still very early in diagnosis. I had a lymph node biopsy on Tuesday and it was positive. My next appointment is Wednesday for a PET scan and meeting with the medical oncologist. I’m scared to death of that PET scan and what we will learn but I know I need the answers. It is good to read something from someone that’s gone through this stupid crap.

    • Sorry I didn’t see this sooner! I hope your PET scan and onco appointment went well — well, as well as these things can go.

  8. I am new to this…..2 months post lumpectomy , I know I’m one of luckier ones if you can call anything about this lucky. But wanted to share a story. I’m a School Lunch Lady the day I came back to school from being off after surgery was ‘The Volley for the Cure’ game for the high school volleyball girls , they had bought me a Pink T-shirt and asked me to be sure to come to the game that night. I went as I always do , lots of fund raising things such as raffles and so on. At the beginning of the Varsity game they announced all the winners of the raffles it was a fun time making money for ‘The Cure’ all the kids were there and all glad to see me….was very heart-warming. Then the announcer finished with announcing all the winners and he said……..WILL ALL THE PEOPLE FIGHTING OR SURVIVORS PLEASE STAND…….My heart sunk……I wanted to slide under the bleachers!! I just sat there….I DID NOT WANT TO STAND UP!! I groaned and my Co-worker sitting beside me said ‘STAND UP Sandy’ All the kids were turned looking at me , they looked happy for me!! Hardest thing ……I didn’t want to let them down so I stood up. There were 2 of us that stood up in the whole gym……and the whole place clapped and I felt like I just won the Spelling Bee!! It has gotten better for me since then but I haven’t figured out WHY DO THEY DO THIS???? UGH!! I wanted to cry but didn’t because of the kids……but since then I’ve told this story to a lot of my friends and have laughed over and over about it……..you are right things get better!!! Thank you for your words…….I thought I was the only one that didn’t like when people say to me ‘YOU CAN DO THIS’ or “YOU ARE THE STRONGEST WOMAN I KNOW YOU”LL BE FINE’ Now I know it’s ok to want to smack them! I was feeling very guilty before I found your blog!!

  9. Thank you for this. I’m 35, a mother to two little ones and was just diagnosed with IDC this month. I’m still waiting for surgery (and trying to decide which way to go), and still don’t know what else I’ll have to go through.. Rads only or chemo as well. This waiting part is really hard to get through, not that the surgery or treatments will be a walk in the park, but I feel like everything is on hold and out of my control. I have been cracking jokes about it as a way to cope and people give me weird looks, but it’s the only way I know how to be okay with what’s now part of my life. I’ve just discovered your blog and am glad to have found something from someone close in age. Im not discounting the older ladies experience, it just is harder to relate.

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