Clearly cancer is a physical ailment – I mean, my cells are mutating and trying to kill me! But so much of the treatment and recovery relies on the way the whole process is dealt with mentally. Being optimistic and positive is essential. But is is realistic? Am I actually burying my head in the sand?
No one wants to hear those horrible words “you have cancer”, but once you do there is no going back. Unfortunately there is no way to turn back time or to magic the cancer into thin air, no matter how much we all want to. And we all do. Want it more than anything. All we can do now is choose how we respond to that news and how we move forward.
Some people have friends and/or family members who have been through breast cancer before, and they know exactly what to expect. I was not in that category. I knew nothing about it at all. Nothing! I had no idea there were different types of breast cancer and different ways of treating each of them – in fact I didn’t even realise that breast cancer is treated differently to any other sort of cancer.
All I knew was the hair loss from chemo, that many people have a mastectomy, and the potential life sentence. But even those are true only sometimes, or partially true, or even optional.
Did you know there are now ways to try to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy? It’s called a cold cap, and it’s stuck on your head for some time before, during and after chemo and has a liquid running through it at -4 degrees. The idea is the blood vessels constrict, the chemo cant get to that area, and the hair folicles don’t die. I probably couldn’t cope with the cold, but for some people it works brilliantly.
Then there’s the down side – the chemo doesn’t get to every part of your body, so potentially there could be some cancerous cells near your scalp that do not get zapped – is having hair worth the risk?
Chemo is not yet on my radar, but I am still learning about the effects, options and treatments and oh boy is there a lot to learn and so many different variables. And this is where I start to think about my mindset.
My surgeon is so optimistic – almost to the point of being blazé. “Oh, we can fix this easily! We’ll just whip those boobs right off and you will be as good as new!” Okay, maybe those weren’t his exact words, but it is the implication.
Oh, I know I am lucky compared to many people that walk in and out of his office. He probably says positive things to everyone. But if I were to only listen to him, I would be thinking this cancer thing is a walk in the park.
I really want to believe (and in some ways I do!) that it will be that easy. A bit of surgery, and I’m all fixed forever. Yes, the surgery is a pretty extreme measure and it’s going to be unimaginably painful and at least three procedures over a few months, but it’s “only” surgery.
I’m a realist though. While I am thrilled with my diagnosis of DCIS (as opposed to other types of breast cancer), I have read so many stories of other women who have been in the exact same situation as me – and the pathology testing after the mastectomy has found more cancer. Often that cancer is invasive. There is also the chance the invasive cancer will be found in the lymph nodes I am having removed. If this happens, I will be having chemo.
I have to prepare myself for that.
It’s still so unreal. I don’t feel sick in any way. As I sit here typing I still can’t get my head around the idea that this time next week I will have no boobs. It’s like I’m in some surreal fairy tale, that is very soon going to become a painful nightmare. I wonder regularly if I can somehow stop all that is about to happen. Can I find a way? Another logical path? Can I just bury my head in the sand and hope this all blows over?
My cancer journey is not the most common path people take. More often than not right after diagnosis you are straight into surgery, then immediately onto chemo. Or sometimes it’s the other way round, chemo first, then surgery. Whatever it is, there’s not a lot of time to think, to research, to reconsider, to wonder. I have had time.
My cancer was mostly removed before I even knew what it was. Sure, my margins weren’t clear, which means there are likely some cancer cells in there still somewhere (hence the boobs coming off!) but mostly I have been able to think that at least the cancer is gone. Then, in the next moment, I think “what if those extra cells are multiplying?” Even worse, “my large, 4cm lump was very hard to see on mammogram and ultrasound – what else could be hiding in there?”
I have to stop these thoughts when they arise. It’s the start of a big long “what if” spiral that just goes continuously down. Stopping the thoughts is, of course, a challenge, but I make a conscious decision and think of the positives instead.
It’s hard. Everyone seems to think I am strong. But my answer to that is that I don’t have a choice. Mindset to me is important. I’ve always loved the saying “Fake it until you make it!” I do that a lot. I put on my big girl knickers and do what has to be done. I might be falling apart on the inside, but my only way to deal with that is action. Only I can make the choice of how I react.
We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook – in fact I saw one just today. It said:
“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where the power is.”
I truely believe this. With everything in life we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with it. I choose to not be a victim, to not be an source of pity, to not be defined by cancer. I choose to be positive, I choose to be proactive, I choose to fight. I choose to live.
See you on the other side…