Sometimes Comfort is Found Beyond Your Comfort Zone
October, being breast cancer awareness month, is a perfect time to share some of what I’m learning from having breast cancer. My very first blog post, Hope and Action, was published October 2012, when I was a ten-year survivor. It was about my first diagnosis of breast cancer. Now, two recurrences later, I have much more I’d like to share.
This time, the third time, cancer has taken a much greater toll on me—physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Reading my journal entries from before my surgery on April 6, and immediately following, I realize I had no idea how hard I’d be walloped. My plans were to face it all head-on and jump right back onto my feet afterwards, barely skipping a beat. Little did I know.
In retrospect, it all makes sense. This time, the cancer was invasive and life threatening—now and possibly in the future. The immediate treatment, a mastectomy and reconstruction with an implant, was much more involved and impactful in every way than a lumpectomy. And on June 7, nine weeks out from surgery, I had complications—an infection the most heavy-duty antibiotics couldn’t resolve. On July 2, following another hospitalization, I had surgery to remove the implant. I’ve been recovering ever since.
I’ve long known life is one big classroom, so I’ve been looking for the lessons I’m meant to learn from this particular assignment. There are many. My hope is by sharing them, anyone walking the same path as I might have an easier time of it. Or, if someone you know is dealing with cancer, perhaps an insider’s view will help you to help them.
One thing I’ve learned is having cancer is piercingly lonely. No matter how many professionals or supports or friends or loved ones surround you, in the end you are an island. Alone with your body, your pain, your churning thoughts, your sleepless nights, the decisions you have to make, the consequences of those decisions—and your fear. Surrounded by loved ones, you still walk the most terrifying path of your life alone.
My tendency has always been to retreat like an animal to its lair in times of despair. I isolate. I’ll listen to a message being left by a dear friend, and not pick up the phone. Especially after all my years of being a caregiver, it’s been hard to assume the role of care-receiver. However, to cope with the loneliness of cancer, I’ve learned to be more open to reaching out for help and receptive to those reaching for me. To say, “Please help.” And to say, “Yes, please” when help is offered. And, always, to say, “Thank you.”
I’ve never been a “joiner,” but I’ve joined two breast cancer survivor groups and immediately felt warmly welcomed into “clubs” no one wants to join! From both, I’ve gained valuable insight from shared stories and I feel a kinship with these women. I’ve gotten helpful feedback on my questions, and I’ve been able to put my own experiences into perspective. As much as I hate having to go through everything related to my cancer, I’m now so aware of how much worse it could have been. The stories women bravely share about their bilateral mastectomies, stage 4 metastatic cancer, radiation, and chemotherapy make me grateful my own story is much less complicated. Much more hopeful. Reading their stories, I weep for them. Many of the women in these groups are so young, with small children, careers they have to put on hold, and little in the way of support systems.
My support systems are my biggest blessing. My last post was a tribute to my best friend, Tanya. Now I wish to express my deepest gratitude to everyone else who reached out to me in any way at all, to help ease my pain. These are people for whom I’m eternally grateful. There are so many, I don’t dare try to list them, lest I leave someone out. Thank you for your calls, cards, notes, emails, texts, messages of any and every kind. For the balloons, flowers, plants, cookies, candy, candles, scented soaps, lotions, lavender products, books, gift cards, offers to run errands or to do whatever I needed. For the meals, home-cooked or store bought, delivered with love. Thank you for your visits, your time, your energy—your love. Thank you for making me smile during my most difficult times. It all meant more than I can possibly express.
All these angels came from every aspect of my life—family, friends, neighbors, patients, my therapist, my spiritual advisor, FaceBook friends, and members of my community I see only in their stores or places of business. People I never expected. I am blessed and humbled by the love I’ve received.
I’ve learned that by daring to reach beyond my personal comfort zone, I have found comfort. Even in the loneliest, most difficult, and painful times of our lives, solace can be found from others—hands to hold, people to listen—if we learn to ask for the help we need and we learn to receive what is offered. Over these last many months I’ve learned to do both—and I plan to continue. Now, I leave you with a quote and a request.