You have breast cancer…
As soon as you hear the words, the world stops. How can you take in anything after that? Once you contain the initial shock and fear, you jump into action mode – find a breast surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, plastic surgeon, someone to take care of your kids, the list goes on. You’re now more vulnerable than you’ve ever been, baring your breasts to four+ new providers. They all discuss how this part of your body, that defines you in some way - woman, daughter, mother, grandmother, partner - is about to change – lumpectomy, mastectomy, lymph nodes.
Before you even catch your breath there’s talk about reconstruction – tram, lat flap, expanders, implants, fat transfer. None of which you asked for or wanted. Decisions are made, treatment is started and you’re focused on the logistics of your care, family, and work.
I don’t have time to be emotional...
You have a plan and feel you have some control as you push down the sadness and fear that creeps in when no one is looking.
That usually works for a while. For many women, after the surgeries, chemo, and radiation, tears start to flow unpredictably. Irritability and frustration increase. You’ve got a short fuse with your family, loved ones, and colleagues. Everyone may be telling you how strong you are and how good you look, but on the inside it’s a different story.
What if I die?
All this time you’ve been holding it together fairly well, putting on your brave face, but as your tiny bit of control ends when treatment ends, there’s space for your emotions to grow. Anxious thoughts about recurrence, death, and pain alongside negative feelings about your body and anger that cancer is now part of your history, surprise you at every turn. Holding onto the thoughts and feelings alone, crying in the shower, putting on an academy award winning performance for family and friends is EXHAUSTING.
It’s amazing how much energy it actually takes to pretend you’re okay.
So now you’ve got this mental and emotional anguish on top of all the physical discomfort. Drains that need to be changed, scars that are red and tender, expanders that feel like round bricks with hard edges. Your body may feel foreign to you. The bumps and curves you’ve had for decades have changed, dramatically.
But aren’t you happy you’ve got perky new boobs and maybe a tummy tuck?
Do you want to scream NO when someone says that?
Let me give you permission to say NO!
It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful that you’re alive and treatment is working. It doesn’t mean that you’re being negative when everyone arounds you wants you to focus on the positive.
It means you are validating your experience.
Maybe you’re grieving the betrayal of your body, or the loss of your breasts. That has to happen to move forward. We have to walk through the grief to get to the other side. By acknowledging the reality of what’s happened and how you feel about it, you can find your footing.
Would you tell a friend to get over it if you really knew the gory details of her experience? Treat yourself as you would treat that friend. Acknowledge the losses, validate the fears, and just sit with the exhaustion.
It’s going to be okay.
Karen Whitehead, MS, LMSW specializes in helping women with breast cancer deal with the emotions and fears so they can get on with their lives. Call to set up your free 15 minute phone consultation, 678-827-2111 or visit www.karenwhiteheadcounseling.com to learn more.