DESPITE BUILDING A career around telling stories, I’ve never really told my own. Sure, I’ve alluded to my experience of breast cancer through promotion of Sassy Survivors and Cancer Confidant, but never really delved into the details of my disease.
Why is that? To be honest I’ve never paused to think about the answer to that question. Even now, thinking about it, I can feel a familiar unsettling of my stomach and shortness of breath. Which leads me to believe the answer is really quite simple – I’m scared.
Thinking back to that time in my life makes me feel scared. And overwhelmingly sad. Two emotions that I’m not programmed to deal with so, in self-defence, avoid when possible.
From the moment I found a lump in my left breast at the age of 33, I’ve avoided those two emotions. As I watched the eyes of my friends well with tears at the news that I had breast cancer, I’d make a joke to make them laugh so they too wouldn’t feel sad. Or scared. Seven years on I’m still making jokes, still resolute in my belief that there are far sadder stories than mine out there. God knows we see such stories every day in the news.
Humour and gratitude have been, and will always be, my strongest weapons against cancer. I’ll never forget the night I was diagnosed – October 9, 2008. Given the effects of baby brain, chemo brain and now menopause, I consider remembering any dates at all to be quite an achievement!
Thinking back to that time I feel nauseous and light-headed. Over the years I’ve worked out this is the body’s normal reaction to fear. The fight or flight response. Ironically, I wasn’t scared for my own life when I sat in my car after the doctor delivered the news. I was scared for my family – my husband and three children, then aged just five, three and one. How would this affect them?
Strangely, I also felt a sense of relief. Relief that it was me and not one of them. I could handle the disease doing its worst to me, but I couldn’t bear even the thought of them having it. I still can’t. And that relief became gratitude – I was thankful that the people I loved most dearly were healthy and safe. That gratitude has stayed with me to this day.
But the reality of me having cancer was something we all had to live with. The week after diagnosis I underwent a lumpectomy, which to me was a good thing. I couldn’t wait to be rid of the lump. In my mind, once that was gone, all would be back to normal.
I was wrong. That little lump (7mm to be exact) was a nasty bastard. Not all good things come in small packages. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and a couple of other tumours had joined the party, meaning I would need a mastectomy to achieve the clearance needed to safeguard my survival.
As I sat across from my surgeon who delivered the news, my shock must have been obvious. But when his eyes looked at my barely A-cup sized breasts before saying “Really Deb, all we’re doing is removing a nipple” I couldn’t help but laugh. We weren’t talking about Pamela Anderson-esque breasts. Fortunately vanity is not part of my makeup, so losing one of my girls wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.
The following week I was back under the knife again, and this time I was sure my flirtation with the big C would soon be at an end.
It wasn’t. Next stop was an oncologist, who gave me the news that, above all else, I’d been dreading. I would need chemotherapy. It was then my defences of humour and gratitude slipped. My perception of chemotherapy saw me crying hysterically in the elevator on the way down from his office. In my mind, the fact that I needed chemotherapy meant I really did have cancer. And that scared the hell out of me.
When I walked in the front door and saw my babies, I could barely hold it together. Right then I knew we were all in this for the long haul, and the guilt, sadness and fear were overwhelming. I liken it to being like a fighter in the boxing ring – you get hit over and over but until that final knockout you just keep getting back up. There was no way I was out for the count, so I grabbed on to humour and gratitude with both hands and never let go.
Mercifully, life went on. My husband still had to work, and the children had to be cared for. Lunches had to be made and my status quo maintained. Those were the certainties in life that kept me going during that time. Chemo may have ravaged my physically, but emotionally I was ok.
After chemo came radiation which, despite literally being the light at the end of the tunnel, I found to be really challenging. Strapped to the bed like Jesus to the cross, naked from the waist up, with male radiologists drawing on my chest before being microwaved every day for 25 days was confronting. I just couldn’t escape my reality. At least with chemo I had a couple of weeks break in between.
But like all things, it came to an end. I wish I could say my cancer ‘journey’ finished there (and yes, l too hate that word). Fortunately I’ve stayed cancer free, but 2012 was the first year I didn’t have to have surgery of any kind. The first year I didn’t have to go to hospital. The first year I could hug my kids every single day. That was the best year.
Every year that I’m around to love my husband and children, to love my life, is the best year. My gratitude for that is far stronger than my fear of what may be. I make a conscious decision every day to make sure of it.
Director – Sassy Survivors Inc.