Life As A Breast Cancer Survivor – Adjusting To My New “Normal”

One of the hardest parts of the Breast Cancer journey is figuring out what exactly your new normal is. When you are first diagnosed with this disease, a plethora of thoughts and feelings go through your mind. Fear, anger, frustration, sadness, just to name a few, and that is completely fine, as well all deal with life-threatening illnesses in a variety of ways.

For me, when I was diagnosed in September of 2016, I was adamant until the day my biopsy results came back that this was anything but cancer. I had the lump for over a year and figured if it was something that bad, well then it would have taken me by now. Although it is still unknown as to how exactly my Breast Cancer came to be, was it a benign lump that had started to change, was it always cancer, and countless other questions, there was no denying the fact that I was now part of a club that I never wanted to be in. You know the pink ribbon club, the one that has a whole month dedicated to it.

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, and there are 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 bit of fear at the unknown because you know you will never return to what normal used to be, but not 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, which is no evidence of disease as my surgeon puts it.

I had my bi-lateral mastectomy surgery back in February 2017, and at that point, the expanders were put in to make a pocket for the implants to be put in. 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. I was hesitant about radiation, but 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.

At the end of radiation, I had a lovely burn, my underarm area was the worst, but I took the treatments like a champ, and was happy to have another stage in the process done.

Throughout my entire cancer battle, I still worked full time, not because I wanted to but because I had to in order to maintain the health insurance that was covering my countless doctor’s visits, as well as the much-needed income to cover our bills. Just as I was finally reaching the point of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, finally being done with all my treatments, with only my reconstruction surgery ahead of me, the rug was unexpectedly pulled out from under me in the form of losing my job.

During my entire battle, I expressed to management countless times that I needed assistance to ensure errors were not made in my job. 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, which 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 error, and when it was brought to their attention, I was told that was not something they checked anyways.

I walked into work one day and was told I was suspended, pending an investigation. In all my years, never had I been terminated from a job, and now I was being made to feel like I was the bad guy, because I had cancer. I always left on good terms, but now since I found myself battling a serious illness, with no accommodations made to assist me completing required tasks without errors, while dealing with both physical and mental side effects, like chemo brain, from all the chemicals put into my system to kill the cancer. While 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.

While I will say that the loss of my job was a blessing in disguise as it has granted me the time needed to heal, both physically and mentally, 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.

After my job loss, I finished chemo, as well as the countless “fills” needed for the expanders to reach the maximum size that the 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.

I was told that I would more than likely end up with a B cup, my first struggle with the reality of what my new normal would be, as even with implants, I would never be the size I was prior to Cancer taking my breasts from me. I spent months living with the expanders, as we needed to give the skin sufficient time to heal before reconstruction could be done. So we “penciled in” my final surgery for November 6th.

Well, what seemed like months, suddenly flew by in an instant, and suddenly I found myself faced with the fears of surgery. Sure I wanted to get rid of the horrible expanders, which felt like rocks on my chest. They didn’t move and hurt like hell whenever you bumped into anything, so I was thrilled at the fact of getting rid of them once and for all, but at the same time the thought of another surgery, or the unknowns associated with it, scared me.

My surgery was a week ago from the writing of this post, and while surgery went well, additional damage was found, something which I would never have expected.

As I lay in the recovery room, my surgeons 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 followup 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, it instead pushed inward against my ribs, resulting in an area of my ribs that are now concave. The radiation 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.

I had taken every single step in this journey like a champ, and it was on Thursday night 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, and still am, 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 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 do not let myself live there permanently.

With time things will get better, things will return to normal, but I just need to remember to take it one day at a time as I work on figuring out what exactly that new normal is.

 

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