October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and each year at this time, I reflect on my own breast cancer journey.
In 2001, when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early form of breast cancer, everything was going well in my life. I was 47 years old and had three wonderful children, ages 12, 16, and 18. Happily married, my husband and I had just celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary.
After being given my options and seeking numerous medical opinions, I chose to have a mastectomy and reconstruction. The surgery and immediate recovery were basically uneventful, except for the emotional upheaval and occasional panic attacks.
My journaling practice from diagnosis to post-op recovery, became my saving grace. Sometimes I would write poems such as this one:
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.
I was pleased that my surgeon had recommended reconstructive surgery at the time of my mastectomy so that I would, “wake up with a breast.” But, as a very sensual person, the nature of my surgery profoundly affected my view of myself as a woman.
In addition to the loss of sensation on the mastectomy side, each morning and night when dressing and undressing I was reminded of my physical deformity. My surgeon assured me that most women are asymmetrical and that nobody would notice.
My surgeon’s input was also instrumental in my healing. I’ll never forget how he suggested that I keep a journal during my post-op period.
I’m the type of person who prefers to move on from negative experiences, so when I was ready, I tucked those journals away in my office closet. Soon thereafter, friends, family members, and colleagues encouraged me to write a book to help other women with their own breast cancer journeys. Given my nursing, psychology, and writing background and my keen desire to help others, I was often referred to as a warrior.
About nine years after my breast cancer diagnosis, I published a self-help memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, which incorporated my journals, poems, and personal story. At the end of each chapter, writing prompts are offered for readers to document their own stories.
I do believe that in order to see the light, we must first pass through the darkness, and while my scars have ruined my seemingly perfect facade, they’re a constant reminder of my survival. My poetry serves as a reminder that sensuality can continue even after a mastectomy and reconstruction, and it’s about highlighting the beauty in any situation.
I have acknowledged and accepted that my body’s landscape will never look and feel the same. My daily glances in the mirror continue to be a consistent reminder of my loss – my right breast removed and replaced with a silicone pouch. There’s no escaping that truth.
To thrive means to go on with your life, but also surrounding yourself with those who offer positive healing energy and who make you feel good about yourself and your situation. I suppose this is what happens when you come face-to-face with your own mortality – you try not to allow people into your lives who drain you of the vital energy that is essential for your own healing.
Exactly five years after my breast-cancer diagnosis, during a routine blood test, I was diagnosed with smoldering myeloma, a form of blood cancer. I was shocked once again and driven back to my journals to help me make sense of the news.
I had always been productively creative, but this new diagnosis brought with it an added sense of urgency to share my words and passion with the world. I’d never been afraid of dying, but immediately after this diagnosis, I went into overdrive, burning the candle at both ends and putting out book after book. I truly felt my impending mortality.
I’ve always cherished my journaling time, and this was especially true during my cancer journey – from diagnosis to recovery. It was a time for deep reflection, and each morning I sat in my backyard overlooking the lake with my cup of coffee and poured my sentiments onto the pages of my journal.
Many women have used journals to record their breast-cancer experiences. Some of these journals or books have been published, such as those by Audre Lorde, May Sarton, Betty Rollin, Rose Kushner, Hilda Raz, and Elizabeth Berg, to name a few.
For me, journaling on gave me the opportunity to get to know myself on a deeper level. A lot came forth during my journaling practice. I realized that I didn’t want to be identified as a cancer victim. Rather, I wanted to be the person who overcame cancer. I didn’t want empathy or sympathy; I just wanted to be respected and loved.
Now, more than 20 years after my breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve returned to my daily routines, but the emotional and physical scars of having had breast cancer and then multiple myeloma will always be present. Over the years, the pain has dulled somewhat, and I’m less sensitive; and more proud of my survival, revival, and ability to thrive.
Here is another poem I wrote in my journal, which was later published in my second memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey: (If you write me, I will send you and autographed copy.)
Having a breast sliced off
leaves a woman with two lives—
the one before the loss
and the one after.
Journaling has taught me that emotional healing usually takes longer than physical healing. As cancer survivors and thrivers, we’re often led to reflect upon our mortality and wonder what people will say about us after we’re gone.
I want to be remembered as a woman warrior who survived in spite of all odds, and also as a positive person who contributed to the happiness of others in whatever way possible – without jeopardizing my own health. I also want to be remembered as someone who celebrated life’s high points and navigated quickly through turbulence.
Do you think of yourself as a survivor or warrior? What is your most prominent battle? Did you win? What means did you use to remain above water and thrive?