Michelle, a busy executive and mom when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, found that containing her emotions allowed her to present a normal face to the world and get on with life.
I had just turned 40 when I found a lump. It was mobile, not stationary, and my ob/gyn said it was nothing. But he also confessed to not being and expert and since I had just turned 40, suggested I get a mammogram and sonogram if I was concerned. They found it on the sonogram.
I think I knew it was cancer, but was trying to convince myself it was nothing for a while. It just didn’t feel right. When I went for a biopsy, the doctor said something like, “This is not good” but didn’t give me any further information. I was getting on a flight to Milan that afternoon for a five-day work trip—the same time it would take to get results—so I just put it out of my head. When I got back, my husband came with me to get the results, but the doctor didn’t show up! She called in and nonchalantly said, “Yes, it’s cancer, probably stage 3. It’s bad.”
I burst into tears. Even though in my heart I already knew, I had a rush of emotions. And suddenly the nurses were swarming around me asking if I was okay. They seemed shocked. Are you not supposed to show emotion when you get diagnosed?
Switching into High Gear
It was dizzying the amount of information that was thrown at me at that moment. I was just numb. I don’t know how people do it if they are alone. My husband was the one who immediately jumped in and started making doctor appointments—we were able to rush right from that biopsy results to meet with a surgeon. He was keeping track of everything we were being told. I wouldn’t have been able to manage the details.
I had a day of falling apart, but after that, just switched into autopilot. My son was only five at the time and I remember thinking that he can’t lose his mom. He deserves to have two parents. So, I just had to get it together. And there was so much to do. We actually got an old-fashioned calendar just to plan out everything. We needed to see it all laid out.
Trust in Plans
The plan was that I would have chemo first to shrink the tumor. Then surgery, during which they would start the reconstruction, then radiation and finish the reconstruction. I opted for a double mastectomy. I had heard stories of women getting cancer in their second breast and just didn’t want to risk it. As a good friend said,“Do the most you can do, not the least you can get away with.” It turned out to be really good advice.
I’m a researcher by trade, but my approach to dealing with cancer was not to research anything. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just trusted my doctors and followed their advice. The first chemo they gave me was called the Red Devil. I was scared and intrigued. I just didn’t know what to expect. The medical team talks you through it, but they don’t know how your body will react. They handed me some anti-nausea medication before they started. Just holding it made me feel like I was safe.
The first time, my husband came with me. That was the only time I let anyone come. We picked up some soup on the way home and I just climbed into bed and waited. They said it would take a couple of hours before any side effects happened. I stayed in bed for 2-3 days, didn’t eat or anything. My son would come in for a little bit, but then he would leave again. I felt like I was shaking or spinning or like the gray static screen after the TV broadcast is done for the night. Just buzzing with the chemo. Then I forced myself to go back to work. I needed a little help getting going, but it was fine.
The first chemo was really the worst. My nurse was full of empathy and experience, but her hands shook, and she missed my vein. They were telling me about the toxicity of the chemo, so I decided to get a port. And my hair started falling out on the 14th day, just as they had predicted. So, I got a wig, had my hair shaved off and went right back to work. That was my way of coping.
A Family Affair
My husband was also going through my cancer, and it was impacting him not just me. He set up a CaringBridge account to share what was going on. I probably wouldn’t have told anyone, but he is very social. He still has every friend he has ever made, so it was important to him that he was communicating with everyone. As a result, people started reaching out to me, offering advice, telling me their cancer experiences, etc. It was probably a form of therapy for them, but after some of what they said, I was scared. I didn’t want to know what they had been through or what I had to look forward to.
I didn’t have a large support team, I just wanted to keep it to a small circle. Even my parents were kind of hurt that I didn’t want them to do more. In the beginning, when I had a PET scan that involved radioactivity and couldn’t go home to my son, I got a room at a hotel and my parents showed up to spend the night with me. We were high-fiving each other when we learned the cancer hadn’t spread and it was great to have them there. But it set the wrong expectation.
Keeping it Normal
After that, it hurt my parents to not be with me at every doctor appointment, because that’s what they do—their whole lives revolve around their kids. But I knew that I didn’t want anyone to see me as vulnerable. I knew that once they saw me hooked up to chemo and sleeping in the chair and everything else that was going on in that room that they would never get that image out of their minds. What I needed to feel better was normalcy. I needed to remain strong whether I was feeling it or not, and didn’t want anyone to think I was going to die.
When people asked things like “Why are you going to work?” or “Why are you carrying your laptop in a heavy briefcase?” I felt like they weren’t being helpful. I know it was out of love, but it drove me crazy when people assumed I couldn’t do things. At times it felt as if they were trying to break me or wanted me to be sicker than I felt. The only person that I let have any real sense of what I was going through was my husband, but I didn’t even want him to have that perception that I was sick. It was my own insecurities. I didn’t want my son to see me as a person he needed to worry about dying, so just kept it all to myself.
Treatment was okay. I really didn’t have any side effects from the chemo other than needing to spend a couple of days in bed. I bounced back pretty quickly each time. And had no real side effects from the radiation either, although I know many people do. Maybe because I was still so young? It made me feel as though time was on my side.
It was strange after everything was done. It feels much less scientific that I thought it would be. I don’t have mammograms anymore—there is nothing to image. I just see the oncologist and the surgeon and periodically have blood tests. At first it was every three months, then six. It made me a little anxious when they stopped looking so often. And the anxiety could be triggered by someone else’s cancer or a visit to the doctor. I still have the sense that cancer is never really fully gone. It’s always there.
I changed jobs after cancer because I wanted to be anonymous. I had been at my old job since college. They all knew, and I couldn’t have existed there without being a person who has cancer. Now, very few people I work with know. There was a woman who told me she was concerned about something she felt, and I knew I had information I could share with her. I am sort of mentoring her to help her get through. So, it comes up every once in a while, and I try to use it for good. As the years have gone by, I more readily speak about my experience. I’ve been able to help many women, but the only way to do that is to reveal what happened to me. The perspective that comes with the passage of time makes it easier to talk about it all.
Learning to Cope
I don’t know that I have ever really dealt with it emotionally. But, I am much more sensitive now, and question if I did enough to acknowledge the support I was offered. The outpouring of friendship and love I experienced from unexpected people still surprises me. You never know who is going to emerge in a crisis. That taught me a lot about how I cope, and I am trying to change my behavior as a result of that, to be more generous.
Knowing what I know now, maybe I would have taken a little bit more time and let my body recover more before going back to work. Maybe I would have let my parents come with me to chemo like they wanted to. But, it sort of worked for me the way I did it, so it’s not clear that I should have done too much differently. Cancer wasn’t life changing. Recovery meant resuming the life I already had.