One of my friend’s friends was just diagnosed with breast cancer. She is a young mom. too. I was trying to think about my first days of diagnosis. What did I need to hear? What did I need to know?
First, I would say this: “you are going to be okay.” I would scream it “YOU ARE GOING TO BE OKAY” I would tell her to make it her mantra. “I am going to be okay. . . I am going to be okay.”
Is it true? Of course it is. It has to be. I still tell myself this: “I am going to be okay.”
I would tell her that the unbearable sadness, confusion, darkness, and the constant feelings of panic- won’t last. They can’t. That amount of misery is not sustainable. It feels like it will never lift. People tell you it will, but you don’t believe them. You just numbly nod your head. I remember bawling in the car to my dad the day after I got the call. I remember saying, “My biggest fear is that I will never be happy again. What if I am never happy again? ” My dad cried too. He didn’t say much. What could he say? What can you promise?
I would promise her. You will be happy again. Is this true? Of course it is. It has to be.
I would tell her to find a doctor that she trusted. A doctor that looked her in the eye and made her feel like a woman, a mother, a person, not a statistic. A doctor that could tell her the latest research and information about the disease A doctor that offered a solid plan, and hope.
And then I would make her promise, make her swear, make her give me her word — that she would NEVER, EVER Google breast cancer. NEVER EVER. Those are facts and statistics, and stories about other women. Not about her. Not about her body, her cancer, her story. When you have a question, a fear, a worry, a wonder, a need- call your doctor. Do not use Google as your magic 8 ball. It doesn’t know how your story goes. Say a prayer. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Break a dish. Scream “fuck!” and hit your pillow. But NEVER EVER Google it.
I would tell her that it is all going to hurt. That your body will not feel like your own. That you will feel broken, and alone, and scared. That you will envy the other women in the grocery store talking on their cell phones and feeding their kids bananas in the cart, with their soft hair swooped up into messy buns. You will envy them, because you know exactly what that ease and normalcy feel like. You will remember, sort of, what it feels like to walk so lightly through your day. You will envy the people that so kindly offer to take your kids so you can rest. You will hear them laughing with your children and you will cry softly so they don’t hear. You will cry a lot. Sometimes it will be a gentle cry. A peaceful cry. A cry that shows that you are surrendering to this journey. And sometimes it will be an ugly cry, an angry cry. A cry that shows that you hate this journey. A cry that asks why, why, why?
I would tell her to seek out professional help. Go talk to someone who can guide you through your emotions. To someone who will say, “of course you feel that way.” To someone who will let you accept and own the full range of your emotions. My husband and I got help. Our feelings were validated, we felt heard, and seen. We were given the tools we needed to process each step of the journey.
I would tell her to be vulnerable. I would tell her that the real strength that people love to praise- is really the strength to show your weakness. To be open, to be a mess, to be scared, and broken, and real. No one needs you to pretend. People will be drawn to your brokenness. There is an unspeakable beauty there. A power that pulls out the best in others. That brings strangers to your aide. That leaves you in awe at the kindness in the world. I would tell her that she will learn the goodness of people if she allows herself to need them.
I would tell her that all attempts to numb the pain are fruitless. That it is easier to feel it all, then to fight it. I would tell her about the metaphor my dad always reminds me of. Life is a river. It is moving, and flowing. You can’t cling on to the rock with fear about the rapids. You will get tired, and weak. You have to let go. You have to let go. Give in to the current. You will tumble, and fall, and get smashed into rocks by the rapids. And then you will find peace. The smooth spaces of the river that are lined with trees, and you will float gently with sunshine on your face. I would tell her to let go.
I wouldn’t ask her about her religion. I wouldn’t say any of the canned phrases people say. I would just squeeze her hand, and say a silent prayer. And hope that she sees God, and feels God, in all of the love that will surround her. I would pray that she would notice the tiny light inside of her that will refuse to go out no matter what setbacks come her way. I would just squeeze her hand. And say a silent prayer.
My stomach would hurt for her. I might cry.
But I would take her hand and squeeze it. I would tell her, ” you are going to be okay.”
I would listen to her without judgement, and hope that she notices that my hair is growing back. Hope that she remembers that spring always follows winter. Hope that she believes.
A year ago I wrote an essay about Joel’s birth mom who died from breast cancer when Joel was six. A piece of it reads, “At night when my boys are tucked in and my husband sleeps beside me, my mind travels to the infamous “what-ifs”. What if our tragedy is right around the corner? When will disease, death, destruction invade our lovely routine of normalcy and joy? I know it happens. I see it.”
That essay was written months before my diagnosis. And when I got the “cancer call” from the doctor who preformed my biopsy, those “what ifs?” became “what now ?”s. What do you do with a breast cancer diagnosis when you have a two young boys who still need you to slice their apples, and skip with you to the park?
It started with a lot of waiting rooms, and a lot of waiting. It was doctors, and paper gowns, and blood work, and a port placement surgery, and chemo drips, and the unbearable fatigue, and darkness that invaded each molecule of me. It was listening to my kids laughing with other people who had the energy to chase them down the street, and swing them over cracks. It was being swallowed by the couch, and restless sleep. It was body aches, and baldness. It was the trading in of sexiness for sadness. It was moments of waking up in the middle of the night and remembering all over again that cancer was in my body. It was a surgery that removed the breasts that fed my babies. It was so much loss.
But it was also a rising up. An acknowledgement of this flicker of light that burned brighter in the darkness. It was this standing back in awe of friends and family and strangers who worked tirelessly to keep me afloat. It was the coming home on most days to find cards in the mailbox, gifts between the doors, and dinner on the porch. It was the buzzing of my phone with quotes and prayers to lift my spirits. It was my students holding the door for me, and carrying my bag. The woman who stopped me to tell me that I looked beautiful wearing scarves. It was the feeling of my son’s lips on my shiny head. And the realization of my husband’s unwavering strength. It was the calling on myself to feel it all — to dust off my faith. To surrender to the pain and fear. It was also a rising up.
I wrote that essay a year ago. And it’s been eight months since my diagnosis. Today, I rode on a tube behind a boat with my four-year-old. I was on a lake. The sky was clear. The sunshine was bouncing off of the water. We were surrounded by trees, and all of the signs of summer. I was laughing. His nose was touching mine. I wasn’t anywhere but there. This is survival. The being. The being right where you are.