Moving Forward after Breast Cancer
by Nancy Stordahl
It’s been more than six years since my breast cancer diagnosis, so it’s time to start taking stock of things, or so I’ve been told. I’m supposed to be making good progress on picking up the pieces. I’m supposed to start putting cancer behind me and find my new normal, whatever that means. Society seems to be nudging – no, more like pushing – me to hurry up. Be done. Put it behind me. Move on. Forget about it. Get back to the way things were. The trouble is, it’s not that simple, or even possible. I will never be done with cancer. And guess what? I don’t even want to be.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking who in her right mind would not want to be done with cancer? But the way I see it is this would be like erasing parts of my life. It would be like denying I have brown eyes, graduated from Madelia High School, have three siblings, taught second grade, am a happily married woman, and have three amazing kids. I don’t erase those parts of my life. Breast cancer is now part of who I am. How would I erase that, even if I could?
I’m reminded every day when I look in the mirror that I’m much altered physically. Then there are the emotional scars, which aren’t as obvious, but still are there. And, yes, I miss my breasts. Sometimes it seems I’m not supposed to think or say this, much less write about such a thing. After all, I’m alive. Shouldn’t this be enough? Well, yes, but I still miss them.
A Weird Kind of Normal
In a way, having a mastectomy has almost become some weird kind of normal. But it’s not normal. Then there is the reconstruction. Sometimes this process is made to sound easy, almost normal-like. Again, it’s not. Reconstruction is no “free boob job.” And though reconstructed breasts may turn out lovely, they are still reconstructed. They are still stand-ins for the real deal, a salvage job, or a cosmetic fix, at best. When I’m fully clothed, no one can tell by looking at me that I’m not the same as before. But I can tell. I know. And if a woman chooses not to do reconstruction, she might be looked upon with skepticism, perhaps even made to feel she must explain her reasons for opting out and making the “radical” choice she did. None of this is in any way normal-like, easy, or easily forgotten.
As for me, I haven’t figured out how anything cancer related can have any kind of normalcy to it, new or otherwise.
In addition to the physical and emotional scars left by a breast cancer diagnosis, there are the nasty, long-term and lingering side effects that are too numerous to list. And let’s not forget the most awful lingering “side effect” of all – living the rest of your life knowing cancer can reappear any time down the road. So it’s not really even possible to file away your cancer experience as “finished.” Cancer is never that tidy. Cancer is never over.
Cancer changes everything; it affects nearly every aspect of your life. It’s not just a bump in the road. If there’s one thing in life that definitely fits that game-changer cliché, cancer just might be it. Despite how things are often depicted in media, nothing about any of it is easy or easily forgotten. However, not forgetting doesn’t mean I’m stuck in Cancer Land or that I’m unable to move forward. I’m not, and I do. But I will do it in my own time and in my own way.
And then there’s survivorship. This part of the cancer experience isn’t easy either. In fact, it’s damn hard due to a whole variety of reasons. If you’re one of the “lucky” ones and able to finish up active cancer treatment, a whole other set of challenges awaits.
Once you land in this new and unchartered territory, you are once again inundated with far too many outside pressures and expectations about how to do this part of cancer too. The advice on finding that elusive new normal starts rolling in. It’s sometimes helpful, but often not. Some embrace the new normal concept. Others resist. As for me, I haven’t figured out how anything cancer related can have any kind of normalcy to it, new or otherwise. Nothing about cancer is normal. Nothing about survivorship is either; I’m still tiptoeing through it.
The “Gift” of Cancer
After a certain amount of time passes in your post-diagnosis life, society tells you you’re supposed to have learned some things and morphed into a new and improved version of your former self. This feels like one more “cancer obligation” you’re supposed to fulfill. Cancer does not miraculously make you a better person, or a worse one for that matter.
Calling cancer a gift or an opportunity for personal enlightenment makes a nice feature story in a magazine, but it’s not reality, at least it’s not my reality.
And here’s the real stunner for me. There is pressure out there to view your cancer experience as a positive thing, perhaps even to consider it to be something you are grateful to have gone through. Some go so far as to call cancer the best thing that ever happened to them, a gift even. Do you hear the fingernails on the chalkboard yet?
Calling cancer a gift or an opportunity for personal enlightenment makes a nice feature story in a magazine, but it’s not reality, at least it’s not my reality. Plus, it can be downright insulting to those with a stage IV diagnosis. Maybe it is just all semantics, but words matter. A lot. I will never be calling cancer a gift. People are gifts. Life is a gift. Cancer is not. This doesn’t mean I’m bitter, negative, or ungrateful. Mostly, it means I’m a person who lives in reality.
If looking at cancer as a gift works for some people, more power to them. I mean that. But as for me, this kind of thinking is unfathomable. Cancer was not, is not, and never will be a gift for me and my family. Despite the illusion created by pink ribbon culture, breast cancer is still a horrible, too often deadly disease, and nothing about it is pretty, pink, or gift-like. Period.
No one should feel pressured to accomplish profound things following a cancer diagnosis. No matter what your cancer stage, trying to reclaim and maintain your life and sanity will be profound enough. Trust me. You don’t necessarily need to throw out all your old ways and drive yourself nuts in the process. Make changes and improvements in your lifestyle choices, yes, but don’t go crazy worrying about every little thing you do or don’t do. Eat as healthy as you can, for sure. Exercise, yes, but don’t beat yourself up trying to run marathons or climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, unless, of course, you want to.
And you’re not obligated to write a blog or a book, mentor others, walk or run in races, deck yourself out in pink, start a foundation, or whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do now. You don’t have to do any of that stuff. Just getting back to living your life is a huge deal, and more than enough to figure out. No matter what stage cancer you were diagnosed with or where you are in treatment, figuring out your life post-diagnosis will keep you plenty busy. And there is only one way for you to do it – your way. Don’t allow anyone to tell you anything different.
Ditch the pressures and expectations. Who needs them? I wish someone had given me this little piece of advice at the start of my cancer maze. Maybe I had to figure it out for myself. Maybe we all do, but, by sharing, perhaps we can save each other some time and minimize some of the frustration.
For a lot of reasons, cancer will never be over for me. I’m moving forward, still slowly at times, but that is OK. In my mind, anyway, moving forward is different from moving on. Moving on seems to imply you should leave the past tucked neatly behind you. I prefer to think of myself as moving forward while taking my cancer experience with me. I move forward a changed person, but still the same.
Maybe this really just means I was flawed and not finished evolving before cancer, and I am flawed and not finished evolving today. I was just me. I am still just me. I will always be just me. And this is enough.
Nancy Stordahl is a breast cancer survivor, former educator, and now a freelance writer and blogger at NancysPoint.com, where she shares candidly about all aspects of her cancer experience, pink ribbon culture, grief, survivorship, pets, and more. She is also the author of Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy, as well as Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person: A memoir about cancer as I know it, from which this article was adapted.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2016.