An artist, art teacher and museum docent, Rebecca was newly married to her second husband when cancer changed everything. Now retired and recovered, she doesn’t think her experience was hard compared to many, but recognizes the lasting impression it has left on her and her life.
I was diagnosed a year after I married Nick. I was working in the garden and noticed an odd itching, tingling sensation in my breast. A few days later, while cuddling with Nick, he happened to touch my breast and it hurt. The next morning, I did a self-exam and felt a lump. The doctor agreed to see me right away. She confirmed the lump and arranged for me to have it biopsied the following week.
That weekend was really hard. I was aware that this was serious and that I wouldn’t know for a while exactly what it was or how serious. I was pretty emotional. My husband and I are both spiritual, and that connection to something bigger helped, as did my husband. He was a big comfort to me and ended up coming to all my appointments with me. After the biopsy, there was another week of not knowing before we had confirmation that it was cancer and had to come out.
When the doctor said, “This is cancer,” I just went somewhere else in my mind.
When the doctor said, “This is cancer,” I just went somewhere else in my mind. It was as if it wasn’t really happening to me. I was trying to stay calm, but I was definitely nervous. My body stiffened up and I felt cold and didn’t talk. Emotionally, I was still saying to myself, this can’t be. I was scared and disbelieving. But, I was also certain that it wasn’t going to be bad. I had lots of people around me saying this is happening and we are going to take care of you, but I was just removed from it all. People would tell me to go here and go there, and I just did it. It was like I was on autopilot. I wasn’t frightened—it was just something I had to deal with.
I enlisted the help of girlfriends and found a couple of breast surgeon recommendations and a plastic surgeon to deal with the reconstruction. I also had to decide what, exactly, I wanted them to do. My sister-in-law had had a double mastectomy with silicone implants that didn’t serve her well—she had to have them removed. I knew I didn’t want that. Even the thought of the tissue expanders in my chest and the repeat surgeries turned me off. One of the doctors I met with walked through the options with me, with pictures, which really helped. I’m a visual person so I wanted to see. She answered all my questions and guided me towards a TRAM flap reconstruction.
The second doctor suggested a lumpectomy, but that frightened me more than a mastectomy. I was worried that it might not take care of things. Besides, that doctor was at a large hospital, a medical factory. I wanted to be treated at a smaller hospital with loving, personal care, which I knew the nurses at the local hospital would provide.
Nick was very supportive of whatever I wanted to do, including no reconstruction, which was very helpful. I went into research mode and checked with a lot of friends to do all that I could to get comfortable with the decision. The hardest decision was lumpectomy vs. mastectomy, but once I had made that decision, things just sort of fell into place.
I was very close to my mother and struggled with telling her I had cancer. I was okay telling everybody else, but how could I tell her when I knew I wouldn’t see her before the surgery. She lived so far away. Mom had few words. She simply said, “You’ll be okay.” She was supportive in her own way and didn’t ask about much other than when the surgery would happen. I wanted more emotion from her, but I didn’t get it. She was true to her fashion and did the best she could. I know that she loves me and it was just the shock of it and not knowing what to say.
Mom had few words. She simply said, “You’ll be okay.”
The day I went in for surgery, at 6:15 in the morning, I was scared, but I remembered my mother’s words and knew I would be okay. Being in the right hospital helped a lot. While I was no longer with my husband or friends, I was with very capable and comforting nurses that reassured me. I also found great comfort in the book Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster by Peggy Huddleston. I went into surgery with a headset on playing music I wanted to hear. And, the surgeon turned on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when coming out of anesthesia to help prepare me for coming back. I know that helped.
Coping with Cancer
There are different stages in the process of dealing with cancer: There is a physical hardness and an emotional one. Physically, it was hardest right after the surgery. There was a long journey to become Rebecca again and it impacted me in every way imaginable. It took at least two years to regain my energy. I was very physical before and it took forever for me to be able to walk straight again.
I was on Percocet for six weeks for the pain and could have used another three weeks, but everybody insisted I get off of them. Percocet is a funny drug. It doesn’t take the pain away, just makes you not care that you are in pain. But it is also depressing, so I found myself becoming someone that wasn’t me because of the pain. I didn’t want to see people, and just begged my husband to let me soak in the bathtub all the time.
It was challenging emotionally, too. My strength really came from my belief that whatever happened, I would be okay. I never thought I was going to die from this, although I had seen plenty of friends who had died from cancer. But mine was a healthy body to start with and I knew it would recover. I was not vain enough to think I was superwoman, but I came to accept, as Mom had said, that I would be okay. I was one of the lucky ones and I would be loved regardless. But this was a hard, slow acceptance that came much later in the process. And it certainly helped that I was working with a therapist throughout.
Needing More Time
After surgery, I listened to music a lot. I couldn’t focus on reading with the Percocet, so music helped pass the time. Once in a while a friend would come in to relieve my husband, but I really didn’t want to see people. As I got more comfortable, walking helped me a lot. It was Spring and when the weather got nice, I walked every day. I also kept a journal, making sure I wrote something every other day to keep me on track.
Going back to work was physically difficult. The school was generous and let me slowly build back to a regular schedule. My body just needed more time to recover. One person at school asked me why took me so long to get back, and that hurt. I was doing all I could, but some people didn’t realize how big the surgery was, and I didn’t talk about the reconstruction, so they never understood.
A Life of Quality
There were adjustments to make at home as well. I felt intact, no less Rebecca than I was before, but having sex again with my husband took forever. The surgery brought about so many changes to my body. My lower stomach area (where they removed the tissue that became my breast) hurt and I didn’t have the strength to be sexual. Nick was afraid to put his weight on me, and I didn’t have the strength to be on top, so it was hard. And it turns out that the reconstruction changed the way my vagina fit. It’s just different.
This was a huge change, just a year into our marriage.
There is nothing to be done about it, and I have never mentioned that to anyone, but Nick must know. This was a huge change just a year into our marriage. We had been wonderful sexual partners before, and we are still not quite back to normal. I don’t think we ever will be.
Breast cancer didn’t do that to me. It was the reconstruction. Everyone says there are risks for any type of surgery, and we think of the risks as being death. But there is something that falls before that—it’s quality of life.
I was surprised by the prevalence of cancer. I think it is easy not to see it all around us. But once it was happening to me, I was much more aware of it being everywhere, how many lives it really does touch. Now, when I go to committee meetings, I look at the people around me and assume that some have cancer. It makes me see people differently. And knowing that you can live after cancer, makes you see cancer differently. You realize, it’s okay. I will be okay.