By the time my husband Tim had found a parking space and joined me in the waiting room of the The Ottawa Hospital Women’s Breast Health Centre, he found me sobbing. Four days earlier, I had received a diagnosis from my family doctor of invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer!
So here I was, filling out a mountain of paperwork including a smoking cessation form. Agree to stop smoking? But I had never smoked. So I jumped to the only logical conclusion I could: I had lung cancer too.
A leap in logic maybe. But when you learn you have a life-threatening disease, your mind doesn’t always follow a logical trajectory.
Fast forward to today – a year and a half later – I’m a cancer survivor. On the outside, I look like anyone else who tries to keep active but is known to indulge in a little ice cream (OK, red wine) now and then. But on the inside, I sometimes jump from a cheerful and positive regular person to a fear and anxiety-ridden madwoman.
I still run into the odd person who hasn’t seen me in a while, but is aware of my recent battle. They will ask “How are you?” with a look of concern as they carefully reach out to me, afraid that I am brittle and will crumble. My reaction is typically to shove my new head of hair (same red as before) into their face and tell them, “I feel great!”
But do I?
Not always. And I can’t put it behind me. In fact, I find myself drawn into the world of breast cancer more and more. But in a good way. I see other women who have endured, and will endure what I did, and I want to help. So I have become a peer support counsellor through Breast Cancer Action Ottawa. I am running my own monthly breast cancer support group and speak regularly at the bi-monthly preoperative education session for women with breast cancer awaiting surgery. I give my cancer journey testimonials at fundraising events. And I hope I’m helping them, because it’s certainly helping me! If I can ease another woman’s agony and fear at the hands of this terrible disease, then I have the upper hand over cancer.
I’m sometimes told I am “brave” for speaking in public, or for writing about my experience. I am no such thing. I just want to help people understand what cancer does and what treatment can do. Cancer treatment takes you literally to the brink of death! How can something like that NOT stop you in your tracks on some days – even years later.
The treatment and care I received at the Ottawa Hospital was exceptional. I’ve since been told I no longer “have the disease” (though I’m not naïve enough to believe that comes with a money-back guarantee). And I’ve been cut loose with only minor followups every six months for now. Oddly, that’s where it can get difficult. Because the medical system that worked SO hard to save me is no longer a daily presence in my life. And no one reassures me or my “co-survivors” that it’s OK to be not OK.
I am one of the lucky ones. I don’t have young children to worry about anymore. I don’t have numbness or pain in my fingers and toes from chemotherapy. I don’t have inflamed lungs from radiation. And I don’t have a physically demanding job to go back to. The hormone-blocking drugs I take do make me gain weight, cause achiness and make for some crazy hot flashes and night sweats. But our heating bill thanks me and the money saved goes into those great stretchy jeans from Costco – the next size up. It’s a small price to pay to keep the bad guys at bay.
In the chemo ward, you get to ring a bell after you finish your last treatment. It’s like the clang of a bell that signals the end of a boxing match. Apropos given how chemo beats you up. When my husband recorded my bell-ringing ceremony and we posted it on Facebook, my “likes” went off the chart for the first and only time.
But the fact remains: it’s not over after the bell rings. The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation recognizes this, and later this year will launch a new two-day retreat. After the Bell is designed to help survivors come to terms with their new “normal.” It will help those in need return to everyday life, teach them coping skills and help them with things such as isolation, nutrition, body image and stress.
Did my experience define who I am now? Sure it did, but in a good way. I’m healthy. I’m helping others. And did I mention my great new hair?
Learn more about After The Bell: ottawacancer.ca/how-can-we-help-you/what-programs-are-available-to-you/groupcoaching