When a milestone birthday coincides with the end of cancer treatment
by Diane M. Simard
Although I knew what I wanted out of life after breast cancer, I had to wait to organize my plans because surgery and radiation were still ahead.
Waiting was the worst. I felt like I was stuck in the slowest checkout line at the grocery store and everyone in front of me had a full cart. My treatment plan was scheduled to take three more months, and time had sluggishly crept since the day I was diagnosed.
Every day I affirmed the pieces of my Diane 2.0 puzzle – who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my second chapter. The components included joy, contentment, harmony, honesty, determination, compassion, clarity, and resolve. And most of all, peace. It was finally time to focus on things that made me happy and avoid things that made me miserable.
Just before my 50th birthday and my lumpectomy surgery, the hair on my head began to grow back rapidly in the reverse order in which it fell out. I amassed fuzzy, baby-fine hair on the sides and back of my head, but the crown remained completely bald. I panicked and bought generic hair growth serum that I squirted over the top of my head twice a day.
I didn’t feel 50. I felt 75 – swollen, partially bald, weak, and still mildly dizzy from vertigo. It was late summer, and I attempted to wear my cute wedge sandals, but couldn’t navigate over rocky terrain unless I leaned on my husband, Rene, to keep from tipping over. When I closed my eyes, I still felt like I was spinning.
My patience and ability to put up with the inconveniences of Taxol were waning. I felt a need to advance my plans to become an advocate for more individualized psychological support for cancer survivors, so I turned to my precious friend Ashley for advice. She was a director of development within University Advancement at the University of Denver. I was hopeful that the brilliant academicians at DU would steer me in the right direction.
It was finally time to focus on things that made me happy and avoid things that made me miserable.
Ash and I exchanged a few emails, during which I told her I was wanting to contribute to something that would have a positive impact on others. A few days later, Ash sent an email about an artist who was displaying her paintings in the Merle Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women at DU. The artist’s work was dedicated to those fighting breast cancer and was intended to explore the impact the disease can have on the body and mind.
Ding, ding! I realized I was not alone in my quest to learn more about the emotional consequences of cancer. I asked Ash whether DU had any resources that could assist in my quest, and she suggested I meet with the dean of DU’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, Dr. Shelly Smith-Acuna. Since I still had two more Taxol infusions to go, Ash helped schedule our first meeting with Dr. Smith-Acuna for two weeks after my final infusion.
So, two weeks after chemo ended, I met with Dr. Shelly and several other DU personnel. I shared my breast cancer story, including my frustration with the lack of tailored mental health support and my outright fear of group therapy. Everyone seemed to listen intently as I poured out my heart and tried to cover up my relentless hot flashes. I noticed a small refrigerator in the dean’s waiting room and wished I could yank open the door and stick my head inside.
Later at home that afternoon, I accomplished the goal I had set before chemo began – to drink champagne on my birthday.
Once I finished my story, Shelly gave me an “atta girl” pep talk, then asked if I was interested in exploring more about the concern I had over the lack of individualized behavioral health support for cancer patients. My head sprung up and down like a jack-in-the-box clown as I excitedly told her yes, then referenced my medical oncologist’s frustration with the lack of mental health training for health providers. Shelly said one of her clinical assistant psychology professors, who was not able to attend the meeting, had a specific interest in psychosocial oncology – working one-on-one with cancer patients, survivors, and their caregivers. She suggested the two of us meet. I was encouraged to think that, finally, someone might understand why I was so puzzled about my mood swings and my level of impatience.
A few days later, on September 1, I turned 50, and Rene turned 56. We have the benefit of double-Virgo power by sharing the same birthday, but our celebrations are awkward since it is hard for me to be the center of attention for a day and allow him to pamper me when I should be doing the same for him. We took our birthdays off from work, did some shopping in the morning, had a healthy lunch, then stopped at a local craft brewery on the way home for a pint of our favorite IPA. Aside from still wearing a scarf on my head, I felt like a rebel, stopping for a beer on a Tuesday afternoon while my colleagues slaved away at their jobs.
Later at home that afternoon, I accomplished the goal I had set before chemo began – to drink champagne on my birthday. Unfortunately, the complete, utter joy I had expected to feel as I tipped the champagne glass back was missing. I was exhausted. “Fifty and fabulous” birthday cards had been arriving for days, but I didn’t feel fabulous. I was ready to take back my life, but I was physically spent.
Rene and I exchanged gifts, and he gave me a coffee mug with the inscription, “Cancer sucks.” I wholeheartedly agreed.
Diane is one of the inaugural Top 100 National Women in Business to Watch (bizwomen.com), a breast cancer survivor, advocate, speaker, senior aerospace executive, book author, and blogger. Near the end of her 16 chemo treatments for late Stage III breast cancer in 2015, she searched for a professional counselor to help her sort out her pendulum of emotions. After discussing her situation with her medical oncologist, she discovered there were few professionals who specialized in helping a business executive like herself make sense of her cancer, let alone her pendulum of emotions. So, at her one-year anniversary as a survivor, Diane founded the Center for Oncology Psychology Excellence (COPE) at the University of Denver, the first specialty program in the country to offer graduate-level coursework in psychosocial oncology to clinical psychology students. She has published a memoir about her cancer experience that inspired her to launch COPE, is a national speaker on women in business, survivorship and philanthropy, and advocates for individualized psychosocial support for cancer survivors and their caregivers.
For more information on Diane and the book from which this article is adapted, visit DianeMSimard.com.
Adapted from The Unlikely Gift of Breast Cancer, by Diane M. Simard
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2019.