I think I know why this is so. I think it's because only other cancer patients and survivors really, truly get it. To an extent, those with some chronic conditions or who have been through life-threatening illnesses do too, but cancer is its own beast. There are far too many preconceived notions about what it means to have cancer and what it means to be a survivor, and the media isn't necessarily helpful, because so many of us are portrayed as overwhelmingly positive, as WARRIORS (caps because that's how it always comes across to me), as somehow out of the ordinary.
The truth is, people who are diagnosed with cancer are ordinary folks like you and me who've had some crap luck. I've looked at people who portray themselves, or who are portrayed in the media, as “warriors,” “fighters,” etc. and who seem so positive, and now I know there’s more to it, because I've been told repeatedly that’s how I look from the outside. I honestly had no idea, because I’m here, in my head, living the truth. And the truth is, I don’t see myself as a warrior, or a fighter, or any of those things, and I’m far from upbeat and positive!
I've learned that when active treatment comes to an end, many people hit the wall of grief, and all the emotions that were suppressed due to the “busy-ness” of being a patient come roaring back. My husband told me the other night that the day of my mastectomy, he was floored at how I strode in (tiara and all) and owned that room. How I was just able to DO something so massive. But he’s realized now, as I am (not so) slowly falling to pieces, that what I was actually doing is not looking to either side or behind, but just putting one foot in front of the other, plowing through each step as I confronted it. It’s only now that I have time to take off the blinders, blink in the sunshine and think “holy hell, what have I been through?”
I am not happy with my body. My entire torso has been rearranged - while one day I'm sure I'll be pleased with the flat tummy and less-flabby hips (I had fat liposuctioned for a graft to my upper left chest), right now I'm still in pain, can't shop for pants that fit, and have to wear an extremely uncomfortable compression garment for four more days. And the foobs. Ah, the foobs. Someone told me that they were sad that I felt it necessary to call them that, but that's what they are. They are (mostly) breast skin, over abdominal fat/blood vessels. I no longer have nipples, but rather abdominal skin built to look like them. They are still the color of the rest of it, and the left one was just made, so I still have stitches there. I have no feeling, and I never will - this isn't like many surgeries where feeling comes back eventually; a mastectomy means the total loss of a major erogenous zone. Another secret - this is something you're told prior to surgery, but nothing can prepare anyone for this reality. Four months out from my surgery and I still can't assimilate it. Hell, I can barely assimilate that I had cancer in the first place! My husband tells me that I keep saying the words as though I've just discovered it, which in a way is true. Over and over I'm assaulted by this mass of flesh on my chest that doesn't feel like a part of me. (It doesn't help that I had a great rack before, either!) My goal is to reach acceptance one day. Even my therapist agrees that acceptance may be the best I can ask for - but it beats the hell out of the place I'm in now.
I told both my husband and son that I feel selfish. That I’m terrified everyone is going to get sick of me. I said that it’s my job to be the best wife, mother, friend, forum moderator, employee (insert other roles here) that I can be, and to be there and strong for everyone else. It’s what I DO. I don’t know another way to be - to tell the truth that I’m falling apart, that I’m scared to death of the magnitude of my own grief, that I felt as though I was heading toward a break with reality recently? That’s the stuff of my nightmares. Putting it out, making the choice not to hide it, takes just about everything I’ve got. My public face snaps into place without conscious thought on my part - I'm told that I'm one of the most "together" people some of my friends have ever met, and I don't know what to do with that information when it doesn't match what's going on in my head and heart.
My therapist gave me homework today:
- Stop analyzing everything to death. If I catch the cycle starting, yell “STOP” in my head, or even out loud if I need to.
- Take naps. Naps are not “giving in” to depression, they are healing.
- Make things. I have a head stuffed with creative ideas, but I haven’t managed the energy to translate them from ideas to THINGS.
- Journal, journal, journal. Which for me will be blogging, but that’s good too.
- Take a break from all things CANCER once in awhile, which includes not sitting in front of the computer so much.
Along those lines, I hope to blog more often, as part of the above homework. It helps to know others are reading, and to hear that my words make a difference out there.