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When I started my Breast Cancer journey, I did it with the ultimate goal of hearing three simple words, you’re a Breast Cancer Survivor. While surviving this disease is a feat in and of itself, no one can truly tell you how difficult the journey will be to identifying and adjusting to what will be your “new normal.”
I Was In Denial:
Although all the signs pointed to cancer, I was adamant until the very end that everyone had to be wrong, and it could not be possible that the lump in my breast could be something truly life-threatening. Having had the lump for over a year, I had convinced myself that if it was truly something bad, it would have likely already taken my life. Morbid, I know, but it’s how I rationalized and dealt with this foreign body which I found myself forced to contend with. While the source of my Breast Cancer was never truly known, there was no denying the fact that my life was forever changed on that fateful day in September 2016 when the biopsy results confirmed it was in fact cancer, making me yet another member of the pink ribbon club, a club I never wanted to be a member of, to begin with.
The Breast Cancer Survivor Journey:
Chemotherapy is just one aspect of the Breast Cancer journey. In February 2017, I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy. The day which I gave up my natural breasts for a set of expanders which would eventually be replaced with silicone implants, all in an effort to save my life. Six weeks after my surgery, when I was due to return to work, I found myself scheduled for five weeks of radiation. This was in addition to the Chemo maintenance I was still completing. Although I was hesitant about radiation, it was a necessary step in my treatment, because there is no guarantee that all the active Cancer cells are “scooped out”, so to speak, during surgery.
Radiation treatment was not without side effects. While nothing is felt during treatment, it did leave the area burned, with the underarm area being by far the worst. On the upside, I had made it through all five weeks like a champ, and I was happy to have another step in the cancer journey behind me.
Light at the End of the Tunnel, or an Oncoming Train?
Throughout my entire cancer battle, I still worked full time, not because I wanted to but because I needed to in order to maintain the health insurance that was covering my countless doctor’s visits, not to mention the much-needed income to help cover our bills. Just as normalcy seemed to be within reach, treatments almost done, and only my reconstruction surgery ahead of me, that “light” turned out to be an oncoming train.
During my Breast Cancer battle, I expressed to management countless times that I needed assistance to ensure errors were not made in my job. Said assistance was hit or miss because, in the months leading up to my termination, management was rarely available, and began to be distracted by personal issues. This left me with little to no confidence that they would actually catch an error if there was one, as on more than one occasion I caught my own errors, and when it was brought to their attention, I was told that was not something they checked anyways.
On a day that started out like any other, I soon found myself blindsided. I was called into my manager’s office only to be told that I was suspended, pending an investigation. In all my years of employment, never had I been terminated from a job. I always did whatever I could to ensure I left on good terms, but suddenly my good track record was being turned on its head, and I was being made to feel like the bad guy, because of side effects I had no control over. Despite my requests for assistance, no accommodations had been made to assist me in completing the required tasks without errors. Chemo brain was a daily companion, manifesting itself in a difficulty remembering or learning new things, just to name a few. While I do not deny errors were made, they should have been caught by a review of my work, but instead, my errors made management “look bad”, so I was terminated.
A Blessing In Disguise:
Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, the loss of my job was a blessing in disguise as it granted me the time needed to heal, both physically and mentally. To be honest, there is still a part of me that will always hold resentment towards management and how things were handled. I should have never been made to feel like I was a criminal, instead, I should have been given the support and assistance needed to be successful in my job, but in the end, I have come to peace with it, and know that Karma will have the final say.
In the months that followed, I finished chemo, as well as the countless “fills” needed for the expanders to reach the maximum size that my skin would accept. Due to the amount of skin removed on the cancer side during my mastectomy, and the damage done during radiation, the cancer side was the limiting factor of how large of an implant I would be able to get.
After the last of the “fills” had been completed, I was told that I would more than likely end up with a B cup. As a range of emotions overcame me, I was forced to accept the fact that I would never be the size I was prior to Cancer. Just one of the many realizations that came with the acceptance of my new “normal”. I had survived so I needed to focus on the positives, removal of the expanders and the insertion of the implants so I could get on with life. Reconstruction was the last thing that stood in my way so we “penciled in” my final surgery for November 6th, 2017.
Yet Another Surgery:
What seemed like months, suddenly flew by in an instant, and suddenly I found myself faced with the fears of surgery. While I wanted to get rid of the horrible expanders, which felt like rocks on my chest the thought of yet another surgery, or the unknowns associated with it, still scared me.
Despite my fears, the procedure went off without a hitch, but it brought with it the discovery of additional damage from something which I would never have expected. As I lay in the recovery room, my surgeon’s assistant came by to check on me. I was told later that I was apparently quite chatty, although I do not remember most of it, except for the size of the implants I ended up with. It was at my follow-up appointment, where the bandages were removed, that I was told about what was found.
Many know of the burns done to the skin from radiation, but never in my life would I have expected the damage it did to my bones. Apparently, as the expanders were filled, instead of it pushing outward against the skin, they instead pushed inward against my ribs, resulting in an area of my ribs that are now concave. Radiation treatment softened the bones, so the pressure caused by the expanders took the path of least resistance, which in some ways now makes sense because some days the pain was so unbearable that muscle relaxers and ibuprofen didn’t touch it.
Needless to say, I was shocked at what radiation had done to my body, and this damage resulted in implants in two different sizes as a larger one was needed on the cancer side to fill the indentation caused by the expander. Other than that my incision sites looked good, and I was cleared to shower, the best news ever, and to come back in two weeks for another checkup.
Coming to Grips with my New “Normal”:
Battling Breast Cancer can cause the patient to compartmentalize their feelings. To push things aside and put on a brave face just to make it through to the end of the battle and be awarded the title of “survivor”. I personally had taken every single step in this journey like a champ, and it was a mere days after my surgical checkup when all the sadness and frustration finally hit me.
As I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I suddenly felt like I was mismatched, and that I would never look normal ever again. Keep in mind I was bruised and swollen, but at that moment, none of that mattered. I felt like these lumps on my chest were not breasts. In my mind, at that moment they didn’t look normal, and suddenly I was faced with a sadness that I would never look normal combined with a wave of deep-seated anger at what cancer had done to my body, and what it had taken from me.
It was at that point that the tears started, tears of anger, tears of sadness, and frustration. Sure I had survived, but at what cost? As women, our breasts are a part of our identity, and when those are taken from you, it is something that is very difficult to come to terms with. I know that this is probably my first of many breakdowns, and I have to remember that it is OK. It’s OK to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel frustrated, but to not let myself set up shop and live there permanently.
Life Moves On:
It has been just over a year since I started my breast cancer journey, and there have been good days, and there have been bad. The good days where I can push through and deal with the pain, sickness, and all the other side effects that came along with various treatments. Then there are the bad. The days that few see, the days where the tears never seem to end, the days when you hate looking at yourself in the mirror, angry and saddened at what cancer has done to your body, as well as a bit of fear at the unknown because you know you will never return to what normal used to be, but not really knowing what you new normal will be.
As of September of 2017, I officially finished the last of my cancer treatments and was declared in remission. I will never truly be cancer-free because I will always have the cancer cells in my body, they just happen to be dormant, or NED, short for no evidence of disease. I know that with time things will get better, that will return to normal, but I just need to remember that “normal” is a process and to take it one day at a time as I work on figuring out what exactly my new normal is.