Breast Cancer Journey - Being Strong for Others
Sharing My Breast Cancer Experience
I am writing this series of articles because when I found out I had breast cancer, I asked other survivors about certain milestones in their own cancer journey. Most could not remember the specifics, and I completely relate to that. I decided to try to write down my experience, hoping there will be something in my journey that might be helpful to others who feel devastated when they hear they have cancer. I must add that no two people with cancer are alike, and I have found that no two doctors are alike in their treatment. These are important distinctions to remember when going through such a journey. We are each unique, yet sharing our experiences helps make us stronger and possibly gives hope and strength so we know we are not alone.
Who to Call First
Telling others was the hardest part. I am from a big family (last of eight), and I had a lot of calls to make. I decided I could only deal with calling my 3 sisters, and my brothers would have to wait. I called them the next day. I also decided I couldn’t deal with calling every friend either, so I called three and asked them to call the rest. The dread of telling the story over and over again was overwhelming on top of the overwhelming feelings of the diagnosis. You can't worry about others' feelings at this time. You must think of yourself during this time. I got through to one sister and two friends.
So, two friends and one sister came over. Some advice, don’t ask someone who has just received devastating news, “What do you want me to do? I will come over if you want.” I was in no way able to make the smallest decision. I told them, “Either show up or don’t. I have no clue what I want or need right now.”
The first friend showed up within 15 minutes. She walked through the door and fell into my arms crying. I assured her that the tumor was small and it was going to be all right. Even though I had a cancer diagnosis, there was much more going on in her life that was stressing her out. I knew if I did not handle her with care, that my cancer could be the straw that broke the camel's back with her.
The second friend showed up a few minutes later. She is a breast cancer survivor, and when she walked in, she pulled me into a bear hug and said, “This is not supposed to be happening to you.” She held me for what seemed like a long time, and each time I felt the hug was over, she tightened her hold. "You are crushing my ribs," I squeaked out. We were both laughing before the hug was over. I think she was expecting me to cry and fall into her arms, but I just didn't have it in me.
One of my sisters showed up shortly after that. She came in, hugged me, told me she loved me, and wanted to know what she could do. I told her just being there was all I needed at the time. I had no idea what to tell anyone. I could just "be" with her and know nothing else was expected.
Throughout the evening, we drank wine and ate snacks that they found in my kitchen. They sat with me as I called my children and the rest of my sisters who were finally home from work. I assured everyone the tumor was small and caught early. I was not ready for any emotional outbursts, so I tried to head them off by being the strong one, even though I was feeling anything but strong at the time.
Two of My Best Friends
Telling My Children
My most difficult calls were to my children. I had to be strong for them and ease them into it. I had to make myself sound normal and even unconcerned. I couldn't add anymore to their pain than was necessary.
One thing I have noticed about having cancer is that most people jump to the worst and believe it is a death sentence. I had to stamp that thought out before it was spoken.
My son felt totally helpless - like his dad - and just didn’t know what to say. I told him that I was going to do everything the doctors told me to do, and that was all there was to it. No, there was nothing he could do, and I didn’t think he wanted to come over to a house full of women. I had him laughing before we hung up. My daughter was a different story.
When I tried to call my daughter the first time, she was at work and I had to leave a message (nothing about cancer - just "Call me when you get a chance.") She texted me with a, “What’s up?” Oh brother! Text? No way was I going to text, “Everything is fine. I just have a small tumor in my left breast and it is cancer. TTYL” Uh, no. I told her to call me when she got home. She didn’t. She called me when she was at the end of her shift and was driving home. CRAP!! I didn’t want it to be a suspenseful buildup and I didn’t want to give her the news while she was driving. When I told her to call me when she was home, she panicked. I told her to calm down, and she did. Kids always go into a guessing game, and as adults they go negative because they know “Mom does not insist I be home and not driving unless it is serious.”
Ten minutes later, she calls me and cries, “Is my cat dead?” Oh my, I didn’t even think about our poor old cat. “No, Sweetie, she is okay.” Now, how was I going to break this to her gently? There was no way, so I softly told her. She freaked out. “Calm down. Calm down.” She is insisting on getting in her car to come to me at that moment. Okay, enough of this gentle, sensitive crap. The Strong, Stern Mom voice explodes, “Oh no you are not! You have to calm down! You are not helping me by driving through panicked, blurry tears while speeding down the highway!” Fortunately, my friend who survived cancer and who had been through all of this took the phone when she saw me reaching the end of my rope of patience. She, too, told my daughter she had to be calm before she got behind the wheel. My daughter did settle down and came to stay with me until her dad got home on Wednesday.
Carrying on with Everyday Life
After that emotional night, I went to school the next day. I had only told a couple of teachers and, of course, my administrator. I didn’t want to talk about it because I had to take care of my students. I wouldn’t even allow a comforting hug because I knew I would lose it. Concentrating on my job and removing myself from cancer for a day helped me. I am not sure if that was a show of strength or self-preservation. I do know it worked for me. The day went well, and it was helpful that it was Friday.
There was a simmering component under the surface that could have easily boiled over if I had allowed too much attention paid to the cancer diagnosis. I thank God my friends understood.
I had decided to wait to tell others until I knew the surgery date because I just could not handle constantly talking about it and the pity and all of the different emotional reactions that came with the knowledge until I had to do so. I had so many things to do to get ready to get ready for a substitute, and I knew all the compassionate, loving, wonderful people I worked with would constantly be checking on me.
One of my good friends who I teach with had also found out she had breast cancer, and she had just returned to school after a bilateral mastectomy (double mastectomy). Seriously, the women in our building were wondering if there was something in the water. She, like me, had a family history of breast cancer. I told her and asked her advice on telling everyone. She agreed that I should wait until I had a surgery date and gauge it from that point. It was nice to have someone who understood my concerns.
Would You Worry About Who to Tell First?
Do you have a list of people you would call?
Telling Those Who Would Be Affected
Finally, I had a surgery date: Tuesday, April 19th. My last day of school would be April 15th, and I had to let people know. Because I am the English Department Head, I told the English teachers on Monday, April 11th, so they could be in on the planning for my absence. I also told my students that day. I wanted them to know I had to be gone for the rest of the year, and a great substitute had been chosen to come in to take care of them. So many of them hugged me and told me I was in their thoughts and prayers.
At home, I finally felt comfortable enough to call any remaining close friends and family to give them the details and to have them help spread the word. I found if they were able to make a call for me that they felt helpful, and they were a tremendous help for making those additional calls for me. Thankfully, no one asked me why I hadn't called in an accusatory tone. Whew!
Finally, Using Social Media - the Facebook Post
On Thursday, April 14th, I posted on Facebook because that is what my friend did. It helped me to go to her Facebook wall to see what she had posted because even though it was constantly on my mind, I didn’t know what to say. Her post helped me pull it together. Since I am a writer, there were several drafts…
Here is what I posted:
Dear Facebook Family and Friends, it has been a long few weeks. I found out I have breast cancer, but God has been so amazing. He has given me peace and calm that can only be explained by His presence. I am so very blessed with a wonderful family, great friends, and awesome students. Tomorrow is my last day of school before surgery next Tuesday. That is the hardest part for me - not finishing the school year with my students. I am going to be well-taken care of by my husband, who has researched and thoroughly impressed my surgeons. I wouldn't be surprised if they invited him into the operating room for guidance. Ha! My kids, my sisters and brothers, and my friends have also been with me from the beginning of this journey, and I am truly blessed to be so loved by so many. I am feeling very positive and have given it to Jesus. Ladies, get your mammograms. I didn't even know it was there. I am very fortunate, so please take care of yourselves.
The outpouring of love and prayers, and in some cases, complete understanding from those who had also gone through breast cancer had me in tears. It was a blessing to feel so much love from so many friends, family, students, and acquaintances.
I felt so good about having all the positive thoughts and prayers from so many.
Please feel free to share your experience of telling people in the comments.
Next: How my cancer experience has been a blessing.