October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This year, I am deeply aware of my own journey, as this year marks my 20th anniversary as a breast cancer survivor. When diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) at the age of 47, I was happily raising three children under the age of 18.
At the time, I was living in Florida. After being given options and seeking numerous opinions, I had the choice of having a partial mastectomy, which would mean that I would have to have chemotherapy and radiation, or have a total mastectomy and reconstruction without any other treatment.
I opted for the latter. I chose the best specialist on the West coast who handles my type of cancer. The surgery itself was uneventful, however it caused an emotional upheaval and occasional panic attacks.
Despite the wisdom shared by loved ones, such as telling me that I was beautiful and that it was an early stage of cancer and very treatable, the trauma of losing a breast – a vital maternal female marker – the experience touched me emotionally. I loved and cherished every part of my body and would have to get used to the ‘new me’.
From the moment I was diagnosed, to recuperating in post-op recovery, my journal became my best friend and confidant. Coincidentally, my plastic surgeon knew I was a writer. He inspired me to chronicle my journey and share it with him.
My surgeon thought it would help him understand a journey about which so few women are able to write. I religiously wrote every morning and sporadically, at other times of the day, when I needed to express myself.
Essentially, my journal helped me navigate my breast cancer journey as I recorded my insights, fears, and dreams. I also wrote poetry. Some months later, one of the poems was published.
The day after the doctor
cut off my breast
I got on the phone
to my therapist
who told me to give
myself some time
to figure out who I am
after being slashed by the knife.
In 2006, at a routine five-year checkup, my oncologist detected large amounts of protein in my blood. He suspected multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer. To confirm this diagnosis, he ordered a bone marrow biopsy.
There are different types of myeloma, and like my breast cancer, my myeloma was picked up early. Since I have no physical symptoms with the exception of abnormal blood cells, my diagnosis for the past 15 years has been called, ‘smoldering myeloma.’
Since I don’t have physical symptoms, I do not need treatment, but must get my bloodwork monitored every three months. There is no cure for this type of cancer, there is only treatment. It’s rarer in women, especially when diagnosed as young as 52. People are often diagnosed later in life.
While I have been journaling about both cancers, I feel that breast cancer is behind me. Going forward I do all I can to help stay healthy, including writing for self-care.
I was not planning on writing publicly about my cancer journey. Many of my friends and colleagues urged me to do so, as a way to help others navigate their own journey. Through my journal entries, I was able to write a self-help memoir.
In 2010, I published Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. In addition to chronicling my journey and offering writing prompts, I included poems I’d written referencing my cancer.
Writing continues to help me and my readers. Reading other people’s stories and memoirs can help us feel supported and less alone. While my multiple myeloma story is not finished, I can safely call myself a breast cancer survivor.
Some other important books written in this vein include: Dangerous Boobies by Caitlin Brodnick, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs, The Middle Place by Kellie Corrigan, Flat by Catherine Gutherie, and Twisting Fate by Pamela Munster, MD.
There have been numerous celebrities who have come out to discuss their breast cancer journey, including Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate, Melissa Etheridge, Suzanne Somers, Sandra Lee, Olivia Newton-John, and Betsy Johnson.
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with breast cancer and would like to start journaling, here are some writing prompts taken from Healing with Words:
Have you had a breast cancer diagnosis? What were your first thoughts? What treatment options were you offered, and what did you choose? Are you happy with your life post-cancer?