Breast Cancer Stories
Courtesy of My Generation.
Women react very differently to the news that they have breast cancer, and often address the issues in quite diverse ways. These three women are all long time survivors, and share their feelings about their experiences.
My first thought when I was diagnosed was: I’m going to die.
That stayed in my head for a week and then I started reading up on it. I’m the kind of person who likes to research so I bought books – there was no internet then - and I talked to four people who were still living some years down the track. When you start talking to people who are still alive you realise that your life is likely to go on.
Mine was a tiny lump which was reassuring, because I was more afraid of chemo than anything else, but luckily I didn’t need that.
I decided before having the surgery that I wouldn’t have a reconstruction. I’d heard some bad stories about them and anyway by that point I just wanted the whole thing to stop and life to go back to normal. I was adamant that I couldn’t take any more – not my body, my head. It sounds pathetic now but retrospectively it was the right choice. Reconstruction is actually major surgery, much worse than having a mastectomy.
Then one day, I was standing in the farmers trying to buy a bra and I thought “right, I’m over it”. We were planning a cruise around the Med and there was no way I was going to be swanning around in a swim suit – that’s what was in the back of my head.
Once I decide to do something I’m wholehearted about it, so I met someone who had had a reconstruction and she talked to me about it and let me look at hers.
The reconstruction was far worse than I thought. I had reconstruction rather than an implant which meant using my own body fat, so it was a tummy tuck as well as reconstruction.
I actually can’t remember what I thought of it immediately afterwards but I’m very pleased with it now.
I’d recommend it to other women. Once I’d had it I could put the whole thing behind me because there was no reminder. You get up, you look in the mirror and while you don’t look exactly like you did before, you look a hell of a lot better than you did without it. It’s a fullstop.
Things that helped me: as soon as I had the breast removed I told myself the cancer was gone. I didn’t change my diet or do anything different in terms of health. I never told myself it was my own fault. And I never thought it would come back because I regarded it as a bolt out of the blue – a one-off.
There were some positives. It made me reassess my life and think about getting on with the things I wanted to do.
Oh, and I had a breast lift at the same time, so for 60 year old breasts, these are looking pretty good.
I am ashamed to put my real name to this because I was a terrible, pathetic mess after I was diagnosed 15 years ago, and in some ways I still am.
As soon as I was told, I fell apart. I was completely convinced I was going to die and waves of terror would come over me in the most inconvenient places and I would be just paralysed by it.
I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because speaking about it out loud made it seem more real and I couldn’t cope with the reality of it. This was really sad, because it cut me off from the people who would have supported me.
Looking back, I would have been better off to do some research and arm myself with information but again, I was too afraid of what I might learn. It seemed that every single thing I was told was another nail in my coffin, and I didn’t want to add to that.
It was as if I only had enough coping mechanism to deal with the basic information – I have breast cancer – and nothing else.
Because I was such a mess I was too scared to take control of the situation and I let myself be a victim. Doctors and other specialists made the decisions for me and I didn’t even really want to discuss the options, I just did what I was told. It was as if I felt that if someone else was running things, it would be their fault and not mine when I died.
I had surgery and chemo. The more treatment I had, the more convinced I became that I would die. Having my breast removed was minor by comparison. That terrible fear took years to go away. Even two years later it was with me every day. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning and it would hit me with almost physical force at any time, like being whacked over the back of the head with a bat.
I became very depressed which convinced me even more that I was going to die. I went to counselling but didn’t make much progress. My GP prescribed anti-depressants and after a couple of months on those I started to feel a bit better. I was still frightened but I could cope with it. I stayed on the medication for over a year and then when I stopped taking it I was still OK.
I still think about it and I still have the occasional bout of fear, but it’s bearable. I wouldn’t say my life as gone back to normal. I don’t think I will ever feel normal again.
After the first sensation of cold, hard fear, I was thinking about my sons (who were then only 14 and 11) and how much I wanted to see them grow up. And of course my husband and how much I wanted to grow old and doddery with him (hey, it’s happening!)
Then I decided I’d have to think positively. Really from that first day I felt strongly that I would be OK. I’d had two friends with breast cancer and had done quite a lot of reading and research and so I knew what the medical people were all saying was right. I had a very small lump, would need a partial mastectomy and radiotherapy followed by regular checks.
I was determined to be positive, but often just before going off to sleep I’d have this awful realisation that I had cancer growing in my body. I also felt like the lump was a burning thing I just wanted to rip out.
I reached out for support from every direction I could find it. It’s unusual as some women prefer not to discuss it and sometimes never reveal it – even to close friends and colleagues. But I needed people and I let it be known. Friends even suggested I put a banner up in Broadway, Newmarket! The support I received was absolutely amazing.
Because the lump was so small a partial mastectomy or lumpectomy was the obvious choice. Now apparently there is a growing trend for women to opt for a full mastectomy – sometimes even removing both breasts. Their feeling is to rid themselves of any trace of cancer.
The whole cosmetic side of it didn’t really interest me. But, then about two years after my treatment I noticed that while the breast that had been operated on looked pert and pretty good, I was out of balance as the healthy breast was heading down towards Stewart Island. I had the healthy breast reduced to have a matching pair, but as menopause and age have taken hold it’s heading south again and I’m once again mismatched.
The surgeon suggested more surgery, but I don’t need the pain. I’ll stick to tissues or falsies to balance things up.
For a while I just wanted to put it behind me, but three years later I was asked by the Breast Cancer Network(NZ) to edit their newsletter and I remained the editor of UPFRONT from 1999 until mid 2005.
The network is a grassroots group of Kiwi women who have done so much in our offensive against breast cancer. The group is run by a committee of volunteers and it’s made some exciting initiatives.
My advice to other women who are diagnosed with breast cancer is to look after yourself. Use your family and friends shamelessly for support and nurturing. Go out and have laughs with your friends whenever possible. Threaten to shoot those people with negative messages..
But, above all, be thankful that we are in 2011 when there are so many more treatment options available than our mothers and aunts had and we don’t have to talk about breast cancer in muted tones.
I must admit the fear does come back every year when I have a mammogram and ultrasound, but it certainly isn’t there every morning when I wake up. These days, coffee is the only thing on my mind when I wake up!