There’s A Safe Space For You Here
I remember the sounds of the door squeaking at my very first oncology appointment. I remember the smell of a cleaning agent that was too strong and the undeniable odor of rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer. I remember the snap of rubber gloves being squeezed on hands. The loud crinkle of the paper I scooted back onto.
I had just turned 34 years old three weeks prior and had found this teeny tiny bump on the right side of my breast. I was convinced by every doctor that everything was fine.
Even the ultrasound came back great, they said.
“Come back in six months if anything changes,” the caller from the hospital cheerfully told me on the phone. But a small still voice told me to get that biopsy.
So, I did.
I didn’t suspect cancer; it honestly was never on my radar even though my sweet Granny had passed from cervical cancer years before.
And now here I was, four days after that biopsy where the oncologist who had been practicing for 30+ years told me he had no worries of cancer.
“I was wrong. It’s cancer,” he had said on the phone at 8:00 a.m., 10 minutes before I put my 8-year-old son on the school bus.
In that indescribable moment, I felt as if I left my body and I am slowly learning how to come back home to her.
So, yes, I remember the sounds and the smells of every moment the day I was diagnosed.
I think many of us do when we go through traumatic moments in our lives.
That’s a huge reason why I don’t call myself a cancer “survivor.”
It feels to me like I am supposed to behave like I am “done.”
I “survived,” right?
But, what about all those smells and sounds that still trigger me?
What about the mental toll it’s taken?
What about the scanxiety from the countless tests, imaging, and procedures from the numerous checkups and scares for the rest of my life? Or what about the physical aspects I will always live with because of my diagnosis? Radiation burns and the immobility from those burns, breast amputation, infertility, brain fog, early menopause, etc., etc.
So, I have been trying out the term, “cancer veteran.”
We honor veterans.
We typically understand that though they are back from what traumatized them, they are usually not “OK.”
They’re not “done.”
They will live in some way or another with triggers and will need mental health resources to cope with their “new normal.”
And so do we.
I can’t describe how important my therapist has been for me before, during, and especially while processing this thing they call, “survivorship.”
I clearly remember one day after my fifth chemo treatment. I was given AC, a.k.a. “the red devil,” and what a devil it was. It was a combination of two different chemo drugs, and I was wiped out.
Then came Taxol, another chemo agent, and its incessant bone pain.
I was bloated.
My skin was dry and blistering.
I had a double eye infection that wouldn’t go away, and my once muscled and strong body was soft and fragile.
I went from the strongest I had ever been physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to a bald and broken vessel I barely recognized.
I was wrecked, y’all.
I crashed and burned.
For months I kept it together,
just part of surviving this disease with two young children.
I had a great run in the first months of chemo—I kept exercising, being there for my kids and husband, teaching my strength and cardio classes at my local gym, meeting with friends, etc.
I kept my head, my soul, and my spirit in check.
I was cynical at times, then I leaned into the breast cancer online community a little more and my eyes and heart slowly opened to the reality of what was happening and GOING to happen. Yet, it didn’t quite sink in, and I couldn’t believe it was happening to ME.
Still, I pushed on, thankful for the inner grit and conscious grace that I felt carrying me through.
I want to say that I sat on my bed and just wept silently and had tranquil music on and wiped away my silent little tears, but I didn’t.
It wasn’t pretty.
In fact, it was the ugliest thing I have ever seen.
It was like an outer body experience where I am screaming at myself to stop, and yet screaming at myself to get it all out.
My kids weren’t home,
and it just took someone’s insensitive remark, and it broke the dam that had been building for months.
It broke me and I screamed and screamed.
I stood there with unbridled tears streaming down my face and I SCREAMED some more until it came out as a whimper.
I threw things and wrecked things.
I dumped over plants and clothes and anything I could get my hands on.
I wailed and wailed and gasped for air to scream some more.
When I had cleaned it all up again, I took a hot shower and found myself crumpled on the bathtub floor, weeping again.
Mental health and cancer go hand in hand. I truly think we need to have a mental health professional standing right next to our different oncologists at our first appointment. They are NEEDED and honestly just as important, in my opinion, to our survival and ongoing “veteran” status.
Today, the smells, sounds, and scans still trigger this cancer veteran, and yet I also have more tools in my arsenal.
Here are some things that have helped me that may also help you:
We have been through so much and we are still here, against all odds and that, my friend, is such a gift.
So, place your hand on your heart right now.
That’s a living, beating proof of PURPOSE.
There’s a safe space here for you.
Love you. Mean it.
This article was the cover story of the 2022 Mental Health issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.
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