by Barbara Delinsky
Loss of control is a major issue for those with breast cancer. It starts early on, when a problem is first suspected, and suddenly we’re taken over by fear, not to mention mammography machines, localization needles, hospital release forms, and biopsies. Then a positive diagnosis comes, and we’re really hit for a loop. We’re swamped by new information, confused by choices, intimidated by sterile rooms. We worry enough to lose sleep; we’re hurting from surgery, weak from anesthesia, and stressed over family demands; and we are not looking forward to the treatment ahead. There’s this big C looming over us, pressing us under its weight, threatening to dominate our daily lives for the next however-long.
But stop. Take a breath. Tell yourself that you have to be positive, because you’re the one in the driver’s seat here. You may have to work at it a little, and the change may not take place overnight. Being positive can take practice. More than anyone else, though, you can make it happen.
What did I do to regain control? I got my own tattoo, which satisfied my need to thumb my nose at those other little blue ones I’d gotten prior to starting radiation treatments. And the convertible … Well, I needed a new car anyway, and I’d always wanted a convertible but had never thought they were safe enough. Then it struck me that I’d had cancer. I could do what I wanted to do. So I bought the convertible, and these many years later I still own it.
Stop. Take a breath. Tell yourself that you have to be positive, because you’re the one in the driver’s seat here.
For me, that convertible is a symbol of health, strength, and freedom from fear. It also represents the broader tactic that helped me regain control when cancer tried to rob me of it – defiance.
Is defiance too strong a word? OK. Try boldness. Boldness enabled me to say, “Yes, I want a convertible!” It also allowed me to do a slew of smaller things that really helped, like finding a tailor with whom I was comfortable enough to be able to say, “I’ve had breast cancer and reconstruction, so I’d like you to alter the darts on the front of this dress to fit my new breasts.” And like looking a pushy saleswoman in the eye and saying, “Yes, I know that I’m young enough to wear that barely-there bathing suit you’re holding, but I’ve had breast cancer and reconstruction, and I’m not quite comfortable with that particular upper half.”
In an attempt to remember other things that I’d done during those months that helped on the issue of control, I went through my stash of old calendars and pulled out the ones that had hung on the kitchen wall during the years of my surgeries and treatment. Well, I went to dinner with friends, and I went to family events. I went to parents’ weekends at the kids’ colleges and to Florida weekends for my husband’s law firm. I gave some local speeches, plus one in San Antonio. I went to cousins’ lunches, to the dentist, to the eye doctor. I had my car serviced. I went with son No. 1 when he had his wisdom teeth pulled, with son No. 2 when he needed clothes, and with son No. 3 on a date for Thai food. I had my hair cut. I had my hair highlighted. I had my nails done.
There were no clues to coping with cancer on my calendars. They were filled with the normal day-to-day workings of my life, not particularly different from the years before and since.
The remarkable thing was the absence of cancer on those pages. I actually had to struggle to reconstruct that journey – dates of biopsies, surgery planning sessions, the start of radiation. The only note on my calendar that marked my mastectomy was a large squiggle over the day.
Studying those calendars, I realized that my method of coping with cancer had been to continue on with the rest of my life. Oh, yeah, I did figure out that “2 P.M. with Dr. Y” meant an appointment with my plastic surgeon for saline injections. But notes like that weren’t prominent. They were entered on those calendars in the same small print that I used to mark the time when the exterminator was due for his quarterly visit. “Everything looks good, Mrs. D. A few mice in the garage comin’ in from the cold, but we can live with that.” I sure can.
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Barbara Delinsky is a bestselling author and breast cancer survivor living in Boston, MA. This article is adapted from her nonfiction book Uplift: Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors (uplift.barbaradelinsky.com), the proceeds of which are donated to fund an annual breast surgery fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Learn more about Barbara at BarbaraDelinsky.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2013.