Read an Excerpt
the language of healing
daily comfort for women living with breast cancer
By Pat Benson, Linda Dackman
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2014 Pat Benson and Linda Dackman
All rights reserved.
After Diagnosis A Time to Cry
Suffering ... no matter how multiplied ... is always individual.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
What follows a breast cancer diagnosis?
Shock. Disbelief. Fear. Numbness.
The question: "Cancer?"
The answer: "Yes. Cancer."
And then what?
Then you cry.
* * *
I let the tears come, the first thing I do for myself.
Oh Lord! If you but knew what a brimstone of a creature I am behind all this beautiful amiability!
Jane Welsh Carlyle
No matter how calm we may appear on the surface, we are standing on unstable ground. No one can absorb the news of breast cancer simply by hearing the diagnosis. The overwhelming reality of it becomes instantly buried under a protective shell of shock.
But reality cracks through our shock, our fear, our denial, little by little, until we are ready to face it. Remember, no matter how together and in control we appear, even to ourselves, we want to respect and acknowledge the chaos beneath.
* * *
I acknowledge the chaos underneath the surface as I struggle to face my diagnosis.
I tell you hopeless grief is passionless.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I have breast cancer, you say to yourself over and over again. Yet you do not fully grasp the meaning of these words. The impact approaches and then recedes, is painfully clear, then muffled. You are inside and outside yourself all at once, aware that something awful has happened, but at the same time you expect to wake up from this terrible dream. You are rocked by shock and fear and grief. Suddenly, you shift. You are above it all, floating calmly, looking down at the world. You see the shattered pieces of yourself on the floor.
* * *
I will feel the grief, then gather my energy for moving forward.
Though the body moves, the soul may stay behind.
The world moves, our body moves, and our mind rushes off without us, to visit some distant, narrow place at the end of a long, dark tunnel, although our thoughts cannot stay there long.
Our soul stands still, holding on to the world we once knew, the world before we took the word "cancer" inside us, the world we understood before everything changed.
* * *
Despite my disorientation, I continue.
Of course it will never be quite the same. But what ever is in this life?
Cancer sneaks up sideways, quietly. It whispers, sends subtle signals, until it nudges past denial to get our attention. We see the doctors and have the tests. Whether the results are delivered gently or roughly, the diagnosis is clear—breast cancer.
The bad news settles on the surface. We can't fathom our death, and we can't fathom living with this disease. We sit quietly, unable to find the words to comfort ourselves, or the people we love. There are next steps to be taken. But we're not ready to be brave, or to let go of our old life, and accept this news.
* * *
I give myself time to accept this diagnosis and the changes it will bring.
I'm so angry that my body is all but bursting into flame.
The anger we feel is terrifying, directed as it is against the very universe. The anger within is sudden, wrenching. We scream, "How dare this happen to me?"
We are raging against the implication that our lives as we have known them are about to be destroyed. We are burning with anger at the threat to our plans, our expectations, to our very future.
Think of this anger as an erupting volcano, because from the volcano—as from anger—also comes renewal and rebirth. As the earth gives birth to itself by erupting, we can channel our anger, fear, and pain about this diagnosis into creative action and the vital will to fight.
* * *
My anger is a tool in the fight against this disease.
I have been sick and I found out, only then, how lonely I am. Is it too late?
The unwarranted and confusing shame that follows a diagnosis of cancer colors our perceptions of how others see us. Since we are feeling out of control, alienated from our bodies, and no longer sure of ourselves, we expect that others are seeing us as less valuable, too.
Why jump to imaginary conclusions? Does it make sense to withdraw on the basis of how we believe others will respond to us? Withdrawal assures us of only one thing: isolation. It takes time and practice to discover who we are and the process now, as in any other time of life, means risking vulnerability.
* * *
I will not let my unexpected feelings of shame close me off from others.
The time on either side of now stands fast.
Despite our fears and suspicions, hearing the actual diagnosis of breast cancer from a doctor is always a shock. And in its wake, time stands still.
As Jory Graham pointed out in her book, In the Company of Others, what we hear in those first few stony seconds as time grinds to a halt is "less like a medical fact from a doctor and more like a verdict from a judge. What we hear is 'I have been sentenced to death,' and in your heart of hearts, you know that it is for a crime that you did not commit."
All we have to remember is that there is no judge and that we are the prosecution, the defense, and the jury.
* * *
A diagnosis alone does not condemn me.
It is by surmounting difficulties, not by sinking under them, that we discover our fortitude.
Hannah Webster Foster
Who can know what might have been different if our physical problems had been dealt with sooner? Feel the anger. Grieve the delay. But, more importantly, this is the time to ask, what can we do about it now? Self-pity changes nothing. We take our anger and use it positively. It spurs us on to the next step, which is the fighting.
* * *
Starting today, I fight.
Time ... is so precious that it's only given to us moment by moment.
As we grapple with this diagnosis, cancer is our new shadow, a shifting presence blurring our vision of the future. We are pulled into the present in a way we have likely never been before. A new sense of urgency takes over. But we do what we have to do, taking each moment as it comes, and that giant shadow slowly recedes.
* * *
I stay in the moment and focus on what is in front of me.
In some ways it's my rage that keeps me going. Without it, I would have been whipped long ago.
Cancer requires patience with the medical system and with the well-meaning people all around us. But the time comes when we're tired of waiting for the doctor, or for more test results. We're fed up with feeling dependent and acting brave. Out of nowhere comes an anger that fractures our self-pity. We rage against cancer and everything it has dumped in our lap. This is a bare-knuckles, "Get out of my way," "I've had enough" kind of rage.
Feel it. Express it. Sometimes it is only our anger that gets us through the day.
* * *
I acknowledge my anger at having cancer, let it out, and move on.
To be alone is to be different; to be different is to be alone.
Who around us can really understand? Do they have cancer? Are they suddenly facing death? What do they know? We ask ourselves these questions because we have the feeling of being cut off from people who haven't had to face this experience, even the people closest to us.
These feelings are natural. Breast cancer has a surreal, distancing effect. But while we are inside this shell of sorrow, we must try to avoid becoming isolated, stuck between our fate and bitterness over what has happened to us.
* * *
I leave an opening through which I can reach out to others.
It is here that we feel ... a strong force from the Self, saying, "Do not throw me away. Keep me. You'll see."
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Does it seem easier to avoid mentioning breast cancer than to face the possible rejection inherent in letting people know? How painful a choice that is, given that our needs for communication and support are now at their greatest.
Reaching out to others is actually a way of working through feelings of alienation. It is an opportunity for those around us to demonstrate their appreciation of us, to show us that we have not changed in their eyes.
* * *
By communicating what I need, I create the possibility of getting it.
The burden is so heavy just now, the task is so great ... reinforcement is needed.
Mary McLeod Bethune
We're grateful for our family and friends, but it seems they have expectations of us, too. They want us to be strong, optimistic, to fight. The doctors ask us to make serious treatment choices on mastectomy, lumpectomy, reconstruction, radiation, and chemotherapy. We feel vulnerable, shifting between wanting to take charge and wanting to be told what to do. We vacillate between options and get frustrated with the uncertain outcomes.
This may be the time to reach out to other women with breast cancer who understand what it feels like when the ground under our feet disappears and we're in freefall. In a support group that's comfortable, where sharing feels safe and silence is embraced, strangers become staunch advocates and invaluable teachers. Confidence in our ability to do what we need to do grows.
* * *
I must make some hard decisions now, but I don't have to do it alone.
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
It is important for our doctor-patient relationships to include respect and open communication. But how do we translate such ideal goals into the reality of a relationship that's under pressure and time constraints? How do we relate when the common perception is that we are at the mercy of the doctor (the expert) and that we must be the obedient patient, who waits in the waiting room for our turn?
Say, "It is my life at stake and I am responsible for it." When the time comes to ask questions about treatment options, perhaps even to question a point of authority or to express dissatisfaction with the level of attention we receive, do it. This is all part of the back–and–forth flow of respectful communication. This, too, is part of your healing.
* * *
I express my opinions and doubts to my doctor, fostering respect.
Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.
Brave was the last thing I felt when I found out I had cancer. After the numbness wore off, I felt only fear. As I navigated the many appointments of those early days, I saw other patients, women in various stages of treatment, coming and going with calm determination. Some were taking on the role of "pink warrior" with all their might, encouraging others. Others preferred a quiet corner and a good book. I heard laughter and that special sarcasm that comes with acting normal when we feel anything but. I saw how with each step, we move through the fear because we have no choice. Fear becomes a companion, if not a friend, and teaches us how to be brave.
* * *
In accepting my fear, I discover courage.
That's what I like about you; you're like me. We're both going to make it because we're both too tough and crazy not to.
I am not a pessimist, but I don't look at the world through rose-colored glasses either. Breast cancer is hard and I decided I would be just as hard back. I'm not going to let it bring me down.
My way of staying up and moving forward is to ask questions and learn all I can about surviving this disease. I seek out other women facing breast cancer to see how they get through the tough days and long nights. Talking to them affirms my belief that while we're all determined to beat this disease, we each get to fight it in our own way.
* * *
My commitment to doing what's right for me is a powerful weapon in this fight.
It's a human relationship, not a relationship between an expert and a problem.
Rachel Naomi Remen
Many of us put on our big girl pants and started managing our health long ago. We educated ourselves and found doctors we liked. But breast cancer can intimidate even the most assertive woman. Confidence dissolves and dependency on expertise grows as we realize the complexity of this disease. There are often more questions than answers, but we can ask for what we need. If a doctor's response doesn't feel right, we can find another. We deserve a relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
* * *
I will find a doctor I feel comfortable with, one who responds to my needs.
Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full experience of life.
We're a species hardwired for survival, and denying our own end comes easily when things are good. But as the reality of cancer sets in, death is suddenly tangible in all its dimensions.
We begin to face the fact of our own death, the inevitable end to each human life. We might even make a list of all the things we're going to do before we die, things we wished we hadn't put off. We come to accept that we will die, maybe sooner rather than later. With this knowledge, we discover that our fear of death subsides and our appreciation for each moment grows.
* * *
I will stay in the present and not lose time to despair.
Perhaps we have not fully understood that anger is a ... cover for hurt.
Some days I feel a strange joy for all that I've experienced since my diagnosis, even for the difficult, for the struggles with my body and myself. Other days, while reflecting on what cancer is teaching me, I want to lash out with all my might. In spite of what I'm coming to understand at a deepening level, I'd give all my newfound insights back in a second to not have cancer. I'm so angry. Life may go on without me.
* * *
I try to see my illness as an opportunity, but some days I am just plain sad.
Letting go is knowing there is a future.
Daphne Rose Kingma
I'm a woman who likes to control things, and believe me, I have come at this disease with both barrels blasting. But I have also cried and wailed and devoted a lot of energy to letting my feelings out.
I've let go in other ways, too. I've let go of outcomes. I am fully aware that I can't control them. The only thing I can control is myself. Letting go is a way of mastering the emotional roller coaster that follows a diagnosis. It is the other side of control, and just as important as hanging on and being tough and scrappy.
* * *
Today I let go of what I can't control and discover I can master this emotional ride.
In each of us there is a place we go in the middle of chaos ... that "home" place, that hiding place, that soft place ...
We are angry, sad, and fearful that cancer happened to us. We are trying to adjust to this new reality. We may even feel guilty when we see the pain in the faces of our loved ones as they struggle with our diagnosis.
It is difficult to reassure others before we have calmed our inner turmoil. We can take the time we need to go to that quiet place inside each of us and find the peace that comes with acceptance.
* * *
I go inside myself and come to terms with my illness, easing the struggle.
Sharing the News
While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive.
We may need to resolve our own feelings about breast cancer before we risk sharing the news and exposing ourselves to the questioning gazes of others. It is natural to be reticent at this time, but prolonged reticence may be a signal that we need to examine our underlying fears.
It seems a fair decision if, at first, we wish to share the news with only our partner or a close friend. Still, we need to consider whether we are consciously or unconsciously locking ourselves away in a prison of silence in order to sidestep the fear of rejection—the shame-producing expectation that a cancer diagnosis has diminished us in the eyes of others. This is a natural fear, but we don't let it stop us from discovering the ones who are waiting to embrace and support us.
* * *
I will not keep my cancer a secret out of fear or shame, but will risk sharing my news with those who care about me.
Excerpted from the language of healing by Pat Benson, Linda Dackman. Copyright © 2014 Pat Benson and Linda Dackman. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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