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The Hidden Scars of Breast Cancer

by Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW

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As I emerge from a year of treatment for stage III breast cancer, I have 12 new scars. They vary in size, but each one bares a story of survival and a reminder of how much my body has endured in the name of surviving a life-threatening disease.

Though my physical scars have begun to heal and will eventually fade, I con­tinue to contend with the hidden scars left behind by breast cancer. The scars that you cannot see are often the hardest to heal.

♦ Loss of Innocence
The deepest hid­den scar of breast cancer was caused by the innocence I lost when I learned that cancer doesn’t discriminate. An unexpected breast cancer diagnosis put my life on a course that I never planned to take. One day I was finishing a 5K, healthy and happy, and the next I was fighting an insidious disease with all my might. My innocence was stolen on the day of my diagnosis, and my life will never be the same.

♦ The Big Bad Wolf of Recurrence
The fear of recurrence is an ever-present be­ing in my life. I refer to this fear as the big bad wolf. If I have a new ache or pain, I can feel him breathing down my neck, evoking sheer terror and over­whelming anxiety. I know that he will never leave for good, but I look forward to the day when he moves deep into a distant forest, leaving behind only an occasional footprint as evidence of his presence.

The deepest hidden scar of breast cancer was caused by the innocence I lost when I learned that cancer doesn’t discriminate.

♦ Research-Based Paralysis
Knowledge is power, but too much knowledge can be paralyzing. I miss being able to enjoy an occasional glass of wine without worrying about the statistics and purported causes of breast cancer recurrence. Wading through conflicting research to get to the facts is challeng­ing, no doubt.

♦ Chemo Brain
There’s a saying that goes “Of all of the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” It’s meant to be a joke, but anyone who has been through chemo knows that mental clarity should never be taken for granted. I liken my brain to swiss cheese – full of holes that the words on the tip of my tongue often slip through, derailing my train of thought.

♦ Early Menopause
Hot flashes, moodiness, and insomnia – oh my! The hormonal impact of chemo, a hys­terectomy, and estrogen-suppressing medication has certainly left its mark. Just ask my husband. He’s hiding in his office, fearfully anticipating my next outburst about how to load the dishwasher properly.

♦ Financial Repercussions
Cancer treatment is expensive. Even with great insurance, often there are deductibles to meet, co-pays to shell out, and certain medications, procedures, and treatment-related expenses that aren’t covered. What’s more, missed workdays, time off taken for medical appointments, and decreased productivity due to sleepless nights can affect your paychecks, depend­ing on your line of work.

Despite these scars, I have seen rain­bows through the storm of breast cancer. I may have lost my innocence, but I have a new appreciation for the little things in life. Every hug from my boys is precious, and the vivid beauty of the changing leaves is more awe-inspiring than ever. The big bad wolf of recurrence and my research paralysis have paved for me a path to a healthier lifestyle. My chemo brain is annoying, but I am learning to work around it with notes and reminders. Plus, I have a valid excuse for forget­ting a birthday or appointment here and there. As far as menopause, it happens to every woman at some point in life. And while the financial impact of can­cer is burdensome, I came out of this year alive. Who wouldn’t write a blank check to save their life?

After breast cancer, we can choose to hide our scars, viewing them as a tragic reminder of our journey, or we can wear them proudly, like a badge of survival. As for me, I choose to embrace my scars as battle wounds from a fight that I’m winning with every breath I take.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Beverly McKee is a breast cancer survivor living in Wildwood, MO. Learn more about Beverly and her upcoming book, Celebrating Life Decades after Breast Cancer, at BreastCancerWarrior.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2014.