Claire, a magazine editor with a family history of breast cancer, had been getting mammograms since the age of 28, but was still surprised to receive a diagnosis when she was 40. With a full life that revolved around her work, husband and daughters (aged 3 and 6), she didn’t have time for cancer, but had to make room for surgery, chemo and radiation.
When I first felt the lump, I thought, did one of the kids hit me with something? Then I realized, oh shit, here we go…
I wouldn’t say that panic set in, just shock. In some part of my mind, I thought I would get cancer. But as a mom, I just had to get things done—get an appointment, get it checked out. I knew I couldn’t wish it away. I could see how someone without a family history would have the inclination to ignore it, but with my history and two young kids, I had to go into attack mode.
I’m a pretty systematic person, able to sort of shift my thinking to getting things done, so I didn’t tell my husband right away—he worries so much and I didn’t want to freak him out. Mentally, I was preparing myself, knowing that once a white coat confirmed it, I would be ready to go to war about it. It wouldn’t be a hard shift to make because I’m not one to fall apart.
Impotent and Depressed
Once the doctor said it was cancer, I didn’t know what to do and felt so impotent. Lumpectomy? Mastectomy? Double? Single? Reconstruction? The doctor said it was up to me, but there were so many choices. For a week I talked to countless women who had had surgery to help me decide. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, but I knew I never wanted to feel this way again, so had a double mastectomy even though I only had a lump in one breast.
I told the kids that I had an owie on my chest and had to go to the hospital and would be home the next day. That didn’t freak them out. But how was I going to tell them I would lose my hair? The was the part that got me most upset. How do you explain that I would be taking medicine that would make me sicker before it made me better?
My husband was great. He suggested we get buzz cuts together and that was pretty awesome. The kids got into it and would rub my head like they were petting a cat. But I had a tough time balancing the symptoms from chemo and the medications they gave me to help me tolerate it. How was I going to go back to work and continue chemo and deal with kids and life when it was making me so depressed?
I was not prepared for all the waves of emotions. My husband and I would take turns crying about all the daily insults. There were so many emotional lows. I had to get a shower bar, which made me feel so powerless at the loss of control. Realizing that I look like a 10-year-old boy, realizing I don’t have nipples any more. Dealing with all of these daily tasks, seeing yourself with your clothes off, worrying that others might see me differently, are the kids going to notice that I don’t have breast anymore? I used to have an open-door policy, but now don’t want the kids to come in when I’m in the bathroom.
I’m getting used to what my body looks like now so it’s easier for me to look at myself. When the bandages first came off, I felt like a eunuch, but now the stitches are healing, and I have hair again. The hair was more important than the boobs. I always used to have color in my hair, like purple, so now I’m thinking about playing with it again.
My husband was such a rock. He changed my drains every day after the surgery. But I still don’t know how he feels about my body, a large part of my sexuality is gone. We haven’t had sex since before the diagnosis a year ago. I don’t know how people can stay sexually active going through treatment, but we’re trying to get back to that point. I’m working towards it, but the desire hasn’t been there. I feel bad for him, he didn’t have surgery. Is my lack of interest because of feeling different physically, and worrying about how my husband feels about me? Is he even still attracted to me now? I think he’s probably hesitant to bring it up, so it’s clear that the initiation is going to have to come from me, even though I feel like I went through enough already.
I thought with the bilateral mastectomy that I wouldn’t have to worry about it coming back, but I still do. There is always a chance of metastases. I look at my mom, in her late 70s, and her breast cancer didn’t come back and she only had a single mastectomy. But, I could never live life thinking about when the other shoe is going to drop. It’s like driving a car—you hear little noises. Do you worry about every noise? You have to think about what feels normal and what doesn’t. I’ve had headaches and pains. Is this normal? Is this the tamoxifen? I have called the nurse a few times and she’s reassured me it’s not brain cancer. I guess you can’t spend all your time worrying—you need more positive energy, so I’m doing my best to stay positive.