Eight Things About My Breast Cancer Experience That I Was Never Quite Prepared For

It’s been ten months since my breast cancer diagnosis and I’m still going through this nightmare – even though I have completed my treatment and my cancer is in remission. My body is still trying to heal after all of the trauma its been through.Throughout my journey I found out that there are so many things that I was not really prepared for. Here’s a short list of eight things that I learned…

The first thing is the actual breast cancer diagnosis. When I got called to come back in for a second mammogram I was so worried, but since there was no lump or other indication of breast cancer I had talked myself off the figurative ledge and convinced myself it was nothing.  DENIAL. Well, that blew up in my face when I learned that I did have breast cancer. It made it that much more difficult to deal with.

You will lose friends and others who you were close with.  I’ve spoken with other women who are fighting or have fought breast cancer and they’ve all related to this. Of course we like to think “No, this won’t happen to me. My [friend, family member, significant other, etc.] would never abandon me – especially now. The truth is, you will lose at least one person, but you may lose many others.

Unfortunately, I don’t know why. I suppose it’s just a hard thing to deal with and some don’t know how to deal with it so they just don’t. No one wants to face their own mortality and when a friend has a deadly disease it does hit home. Or, it could be some are just selfish. Although I don’t know the reason, it will happen. It hurts.

Conversely, people you know who you thought were just acquaintances will show their true colors and their amazing hearts. Although you may lose friends on this journey, you will definitely make new friends. This could come in the form of a friend you haven’t seen or spoken to for years, one of your connections that you sort of keep up with on social media but hadn’t had much interaction with, someone you meet at one of your doctor’s appointments, or a fellow fighter or survivor in a breast cancer support group or forum.

I was so sad focusing on all the wrong things, feeling like I lost so much love and so many friends.  But then I stopped to think about it and realized that actually, I haven’t lost anything. God has blessed me by putting the right people in my life to help me get through this and removing those who I do not need.  Although I may feel alone at times, I am blessed to have so many who do really care about me.

You have to put your pride aside – you have to ask for help. This one is by far the absolute hardest for me and I still struggle with asking for help. I grew up being very independent; I joined the military and moved out of my hometown when I was 17 years old; I lived 9 of my 12 years in the Navy overseas so I was always far from my family; I’ve been a single mom for over 11 years.  I’ve always only had myself to depend on and I hate asking for help. There are two reasons for that, the first is that honestly I am afraid people will say “no” and my feelings will get hurt – or they will say “yes” and then just not show up (I’ve had this happen many times in my life because people don’t know how to say “no,” so they say “yes” and then when it’s time for whatever I needed help with they didn’t show, answer their phone or respond to text/emails).

The second reason is that I don’t want to burden people. I understand people are busy, everyone is running low on time and money so I don’t want to ask for help with meals, cleaning, rides, etc. because I do not want to be a burden on my remaining friends.  But I learned, especially after going through chemo, I needed help. I could not do simple things that I used to do on my own. I worked a full-time job, maintained my house and raised my son all while going through this. I needed help and I had to ask.

People really do want to help.  Please understand that no matter how hard it is to ask, there really are people in your circle and network who really do want to help you, they just don’t know how. You have to ask them or tell them specifically what you need.  I struggled so much with this that an old friend of mine from the Navy set up a MealTrain account for me.  This is a tremendous website for people like me. I was able to identify my needs (donations, rides, meals, communication, visits, etc.) and then people could volunteer to help me. This way I identified exactly what I needed and people could volunteer to help.

Cancer is expensive.  I am blessed to have good insurance; however, so far my out of pocket medical expenses have been $8,000. Looking at how much all of my bills would have been if I didn’t have insurance that isn’t much – in a comparative state – but coming up with $8,000 to pay medical bills is hard.  I don’t have that kind of money laying around. But also, that doesn’t include the amount of money I  had to spend on prescription medicine or the over the counter medicine I have to buy to help with side effects from chemo (Zantac, Motrin, Clariton, Tums, Abreva, just to name a few). Also, because I was sitting/sleeping in a recliner for two months, now that I am back at work and functioning (somewhat) in society – my back is completely out of alignment and I’m having to see a chiropractor.  I had to purchase prosthetic breasts, a mastectomy bra, wigs, head wraps, new clothes because my tops fit differently now that I don’t have breasts. All of these thing add up and it adds to your stress.

People don’t know what to say or how to act around you at work. I went into my office or was around certain people and I almost felt like an alien. People looked at me strangely, it seemed like people walked on eggshells around me, or people just didn’t speak. This isn’t to be confused with the losing of friends (unless you had some awesome colleagues who were also your friends). People who used to speak just gave me looks of pity and didn’t say anything or they simply asked me how I am feeling. I appreciated being asked about how I was doing, but I was also a functioning member of the workforce and a professional, I wanted to be treated as such. I am competent and can get work done. Yes, my immune system was messed up and I was getting injected with poison, but if I’m not able to complete work I will stay home, conversely, if I’m able to work I’ll come to work. Be pleasant and understanding, but don’t act like I’m so fragile or unable, it’s quite patronizing.

Your hair will fall out. This was really hard to deal with. I really thought I was prepared for it. I bought two wigs (one fun, one work) and bandanas. I joked about how sexy I was going to be in my wigs. However, once my hair is fell out – I don’t want to look sexy in a new wig. I want to look plain – like myself – with my real hair.  No matter how much you do to physically prepare for this, emotionally it’s hard.  I feel like I am unattractive – almost like I’ve lost all of my feminine qualities – I lost my hair, I have no breasts and I don’t know when I am going to be physically, mentally or financially able to have plastic surgery to get them back on.

Have you gone through this battle, or one like it?  Please share your experience in the comment section. I would love to hear about what you’ve learned – so I can try to prepare for it.

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