by Yvonne Watterson
Remembering the first time I saw it, nebulous and bright white on a screen in my doctor’s darkened office, the cancer makes me think of Carl Sagan’s “star stuff” quote. It requires magical thinking to accept the notion that human beings are descendants of a supernova that exploded long before we were born, that there is ancient stardust in each of us.
If you have just been diagnosed with cancer, you may be wondering if the magic in your life will ever return. I’m here to tell you that it will. Though it will take time, you will rediscover that you’re a star. But you may need some help along the way, as I did.
Patience Is a Virtue
I’m not a patient woman. I like to fix the problem and move on. Quickly. If you’re like me, try not to rush into making decisions until you understand the choices before you. Take the time to ask questions, take notes, and get second, third, or even fourth opinions if necessary. As overwhelming as it is, the more you know, the better you can navigate through unfamiliar territory.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” - Carl Sagan
Get By with a Little Help
When people offer to help, tell them exactly what you need. Stooped and bedraggled following a mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction, I needed quiet and rest. I asked my best friend to be my gatekeeper. She posted on my Facebook, fielded phone calls, and kept visitors away until I was ready. It was exactly what I needed from her.
Don’t Go It Alone
Take someone with you to your appointments. It’s likely that you’ll forget everything your doctor says after “You have cancer.” You need someone there to be your ears, to write down the important details. I wish I had taken this advice, and I’m sure my doctor would have appreciated it, given the number of times she had to remind me that yes, in fact, she had mentioned the possibility of radiation.
After I was diagnosed, I opened a WordPress blog account and began typing. I didn’t hit “publish” at first. Instead, I just saved my drafts, the same way I once locked up my teenage angst in a secret diary. Like breast cancer, the blogosphere was a foreign place. But once I got comfortable with it, blogging allowed me to express myself, providing me clarity and transparency. Simultaneously apart from and a part of this new world, I could be both alone and connected, followed and follower, reader and writer. My fellow bloggers have lifted me up more times than I can count. We share stories, advice, unparalleled joy, unspeakable grief, and everything in between. Blogging has become my way of expressing myself. Find yours.
Learn the Language
Through a strange sisterhood, breast cancer survivors develop an instantaneous intimacy that allows us to talk with strangers about our vulnerabilities, about being poked and staged and prayed for. But it’s kind of like moving to a foreign country. You have to learn the language and the norms for chatting with fellow breast cancer survivors. At first, this may make you uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as remaining an outsider.
You’re Not the Cause
With my cancer diagnosis came a flood of questions: Did I get cancer because I used my cellphone while driving? Because I delivered a baby at an “advanced maternal age”? Because I hadn’t been able to breastfeed or been diligent about buying certified-organic produce? Did it have something to do with the full-bodied Zinfandel I would often enjoy at the end of a day? All these questions had me believing I caused my cancer. More than a year later, I know I didn’t. And you didn’t cause yours either.
Embrace the Unexpected Benefits
While I don’t consider cancer to be a gift, it can bring with it unexpected benefits. You may be inspired to do the things you always wanted to do but never had time for. I took a college photography class. I said no to people who had never heard that word from me before. I rediscovered and reconnected with the things that nourish my soul – my love of books, writing, Van Morrison, and good conversation. In the end, it really is all about me. And you. We’re made of star stuff.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Yvonne Watterson is an invasive breast cancer survivor living in Phoenix, AZ. She blogs at TimeToConsiderTheLilies.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2014.