For a long time I was in denial about my breast cancer, acted like it never happened. Oh, wore my pink ribbon pin, walked in one Susan G. Komen For the Cure breast cancer walk, and gave out “pink ribbon” Avon umbrellas as gifts. But for the most part, I still ignore those e-mails pleading with me to “keep the girl walking,” throw out the fliers I get for support meetings from the cancer center and, when the subject comes up, answer in a cavalier manner that, yes, I had breast cancer, but I’m fine now.
But I’m really not. Although I’ve been clear of cancer for 14 years, it’s a dark cloud that never goes away.
In February, 1996, at age 44, I joined AA, and was advised to get a physical to see what damage I had done to my body. Well, my liver survived, but a lump in my left breast was detected and biopsied. My whole body went cold when the doctor said “first stage cancer.” Having just “turned my will and my life over to the care of God,” this seemed like a really mean practical joke. My husband took it even worse than I did, breaking down at work and treating me like a paper doll after the surgery, afraid to even touch me.
The surgery that removed 20 lymph nodes from my underarm was painful and involved weeks of recovery, along with returning home with a drainage device, which was uncomfortable, disgusting and annoying to tend to. During this time, I lost my job, became addicted to painkillers, and the depression I sank into put my marriage on rocky ground.
The doctor assured me my long, curly hair was in no danger from the subsequent radiation and low-dose chemo, but said my cycle would stop permanently. I leapt from the chair, pumped my fist into the air and yelled, “YES, there IS a silver lining.” I think the fact that my chemo was low- dose and I didn’t lose my hair, made me feel then, and perhaps even now, like a fraud. I brushed off my cancer and treatment, telling people “it wasn’t so bad, it’s not a big deal.” I went to my treatments alone, never asked for support, or at least not from the right people, and my marriage and sobriety deteriorated.
And I soon found that my “silver lining” came with a price. I went through instant menopause. Most women work up to menopause over a period of years. Because of my age, I had had no pre-menopausal “practice runs” and it hit me like a sledgehammer. I went completely insane, became obsessive over inappropriate things and totally self-absorbed.
In 2000, I contracted cellulitis (which I am now prone to and must carry around antibiotics at all times) and, even worse, lymphedema, a permanent, chronic condition. The slightest injury can swell up my left arm. Massage, exercise and wearing a compression sleeve are the main treatments, although machines exist that control it more effectively. Most insurance companies won’t pay for them. This condition makes me angry. I deal, mainly by ignoring it and wearing long sleeves. I think it’s worse than the cancer. They can cure that.
Today, I’m clear of cancer, sober 8-¾ years, and my mental state is as stable as it’s going to get. My marriage survived, and the last nine years have been the best we’ve ever had. I am retired, wake up knowing where I was last night and, unless I used his razor, my husband will greet me with a smile and a kiss. I follow up with my mammos religiously, and am looking at a future that almost wasn’t, being firmly convinced I would not live to see 55. Well, 55 has come and gone.
Life isn’t perfect. I lost a brother in 2004 to liver cancer, and my extended family relationships are strained. But I have a saint of a husband and good friends, a lovely daughter and son-in-law and the most gorgeous grandchildren in the world. (I know, you thought yours were.) I don’t view myself as a hero or someone to be lauded for her strength, and don’t like to be called “a survivor.” I am no one special. I just rolled with the punches.