One year ago today, I received my initial diagnosis of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in-situ, a non-invasive form of breast cancer in my left breast. Initially, the news was not that bad. It was the least harmful form of cancer and was highly treatable. I underwent a core biopsy, called my family and friends to share the news, and started reading everything I could find on the subject.
Several days later, an MRI revealed a mass that was undetected in mammogram. After undergoing another biopsy and a difficult wait, I received an additional diagnosis of another kind of breast cancer: invasive ductal carcinoma, an invasive cancer, in my right breast. This form of cancer could spread to surrounding tissues, lymph nodes, and into other parts of my body and eventually kill me. I did not know yet whether the cancer had done that, and I would not find out until my surgery. It’s as if time stopped. I didn’t know if I would live or die, have chemotherapy, or see my kids grow up.
The week leading up to today has been heavy with memories of these events. Because of the shock, I was unable to feel or process much at the time. One moment at a time, I moved forward and did what I needed to do, and mostly on my own. Because of covid restrictions, a support person was not allowed with me at my most of my appointments. I did not cry or complain much, and I became completely consumed in learning everything I could about how to get well again.
Looking back, my determination to rise above and find my own way in the cancer journey is what kept me sane. I knew I wouldn’t be interested in all of the things the doctors wanted me to do, so I set my focus on figuring out what I would do instead. The price for not feeling, crying or complaining during times of shock is that it will eventually have to be felt and processed. Repressed feelings often show up as depression, and that’s what happened to me.
Since the mastectomy, my greatest battle hasn’t been cancer. I’ve been cancer-free since June 9, 2020, to my knowledge, based on regular checkups, scan, and bloodwork. My greatest battle since then has been my mental health.
Losing my breasts and almost losing my life have affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I had never gone through something like this before, and at my age, most people probably haven’t. In addition, there was major stress in other areas of my life that coincided with the cancer journey. All of these together were more weight than I could bear, and still feel that way most days.
After taking 8 months off from work to heal and pull myself back together, I returned to work, first full-time, and then scaling back to part-time. Three months into working again, I am struggling to balance everything in my life. I am tired all day and fall asleep at work and sometimes nearly fall asleep while driving. I struggle to feel I have a purpose in life and to maintain the will to keep living.
Therapy hasn’t done much to help my situation. Antidepressants have failed in the past, and I don’t like nor do well with medications. This journey is one I must travel, and there is no way around it. Last week, I started TMS therapy and had a sleep study in hopes that these will perhaps help or provide answers. I’ve also been going to QNRT therapy and completed several sessions of a therapy called Emotion Release Process, which have been moderately helpful.
One year is a significant milestone. And, at the same time, the wound is still new and fresh. I still worry I’m not doing enough to prevent the cancer from returning and that my mental health challenges are inviting the cancer to come back. I still feel horrified that I have no breasts. Hopefully, time will continue to help heal the wounds.
Poetry has been a source of peace for me over the last year. Here is one I resonate with today.
Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again
on an open sky.
has to be
so you can find
the one line
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.
from ‘House of Belonging’ by David Whyte