By Tommy Cummings
Breast cancer survivor Mary Dunklin went through the tests, the waiting and a haze of doctor visits.
“The entire experience is a learning process in dealing with fear, pain and mortality,” she recently wrote. “And, sometimes, the best lesson of all is remembering how to appreciate being alive.”
She says she doesn’t have all the answers, but she did make a few discoveries along the way. In her essay, she shared 10 things that she wished she’d known at the start of treatment:
1. Your life isn’t over.
This is huge. And, if you’re reading this because you’ve been recently diagnosed, you might want to stop right here and repeat this to yourself several times. Sitting in the breast-cancer surgeon’s office for the first time, I pretty much expected to die right there on the spot. Thinking about death wasn’t just a daily occurrence, it became an hourly occurrence. I started to wonder if our fund for a family trip to Walt Disney World would really become a funeral fund.
Although some days it might sound nice to hide from the world and stare at your bedroom walls, it really isn’t the best way to cope. Remember all the contributions you made to the world before your diagnosis? You can still do them. It’s easy to get consumed with every aspect of this disease, so make sure you’re taking time to laugh, craft, volunteer or whatever else that makes you happy. And what about that Disney trip? We visited there this year on the first anniversary of my diagnosis.
2. A support system makes things easier.
When you’re thrown into this new world, things can get overwhelming very quickly. You’re asked to make very important decisions while your head is a jumble of medical terms, scientific research and everyone’s (and their mother’s) anecdotal situations. You don’t have to do it alone. At appointments, take people who can help write things down and remember the details. Ask for help and accept it joyfully.
3. You’ll form new friendships.
I’m not typically a talk-to-strangers-in-a-crowded-lobby kind of person. But being diagnosed gains you entry into a very exclusive group. So many people reached out and held my hand along the way. Now, when I’m introduced to people who need support, I welcome them. This experience will also change some of your existing relationships. Friends who you haven’t seen or spoken to in years may become your greatest allies.
4. Movement will make you feel better.
Throughout the entire process, you have to learn how to live with an evolving body. There will be times your doctor restricts your exercise, but this rarely means that you can’t move at all. Even if you can’t keep your regular weight-lifting and running schedule, there’s always something you can do – even if it’s a few stretches, walking, dancing or some physical-therapy moves. This movement will get the feel-good chemicals flowing and remind you that you still have a body that wants (and needs) to move.
5. People will say the wrong things.
You will be asked very invasive questions. Be prepared for it and know that you don’t need to answer. Friends will send you articles about topics that have nothing to do with your particular type of breast cancer. I got articles about nipple tattooing, implants, wigs and radiation remedies. I had no use for any of these. You will be called “a warrior and a fighter” on days when you just want to be told you’re still soft and feminine. These situations will happen, so advocate for yourself, tell people what you need and create healthy boundaries.
6. Healing is a long process.
Plan for the best, be positive, but know that your body needs time to recover. Since my surgery, I’ve talked to so many people who are newly diagnosed and one of the first things they ask is, “How long until I can do XYZ again?” XYZ may be go back to work or exercise or wear a bathing suit. The honest answer is that it will vary. Your surgeon will give you estimates, but rushing to get back to work or vigorous exercise may do more harm than good. When you’re going through it, recovery can feel painfully slow. But, looking back, some of my favourite memories happened during this downtime. Use the time to visit with friends, read as much as you can and binge-watch all of your favourite shows.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Your breast cancer is unique. Ask questions, research, listen to others – but know that your journey is going to be completely different from anyone else’s. One question people will often ask is, “What’s your stage?” Personally, I shared my stage with very few people because I wanted some things kept private. Besides, are you going to pray harder for someone who’s Stage 4? Are you going to discount the cancer if someone tells you they’re Stage 0? No. They all deserve your love and support. So, for me, I will never ask another person their stage – ever.
If they want to share it, great. But I will never ask. It’s easy to wonder why someone else’s doctor decided on a certain protocol or why someone else seems to have an easier time with recovery. Psst. Here’s a secret: It’s difficult for everyone in different ways. Plus, you really never know what is happening behind closed doors, or how much that person is sharing with you about their situation.
8. Some questions won’t have answers.
If you’re like me, you’ll want to know what caused your cancer. Was it fertility drugs? Was it eating out of plastic containers? Was it in the water or the paint in your childhood bedroom? Even though these probably weren’t factors, you might start to feel like an FBI investigator who questions every potential cause. The truth is, you may never know why your body reacted this way. Meditate, pray, join a support group, do whatever you can to find peace that will eventually lead you to acceptance. I never saw this situation as something I had to battle and fight. Instead, I loved my body and decided that excessive questioning wasn’t the healthiest option for me.
9. You’re not your disease.
At one point during my treatment, I had been so consumed with appointments, tests and planning that I started to forget I was still “Mary” underneath it all. A neighbour moved in around this time and as I was talking to her, I realised that she knew nothing of my cancer. It was so refreshing! She just knew me as Mary, not as “Mary who has breast cancer.” Your diagnosis is just one chapter in your life history. It doesn’t have to consume the entire book.
10. Practice gratitude.
Every day of recovery will not be filled with sunshine and roses. What you’re going through is awful and unfair. It’s OK to have a pity party occasionally, but long-term sadness isn’t going to do you any good. At my worst, I couldn’t stand up straight without being in pain. I couldn’t sleep on my side, get out of bed on my own or drive. And, most depressing for me, I couldn’t walk upstairs to tuck my daughter into bed.
Things were pretty dark, but what helped was writing out a gratitude list. I was grateful for good insurance, a patient husband and the fact that I had no genetic component. Surround yourself with gratitude reminders, read books that explore the topic and write down everything that is positive about your situation. If you can’t think of any, I promise that your friends, family and doctors would love to offer suggestions. -TNS
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