By SAMANTHA YOUNG
Six months ago, I was sitting with a friend outside on a balmy summer night and a mosquito bit me under the arm. I went to scratch the bite and felt a lump on the side of my breast.
My doctor sent me for a mammogram, ultrasound and fine needle biopsy. The results were initially inconclusive. I found this out waiting in the queue to see Father Christmas at a large shopping centre with my seven year old. I could feel the fake Playschool Mummy smile stretching my face beyond reasonable limits as I rescheduled another ultrasound and biopsy. For that one, they had a Pathologist on stand-by. I had breast cancer.
I am a 44-year-old single mother of two beautiful girls. I am also director of a psychology practice and self-employed. The day I was diagnosed was the day I lost the carefully constructed control I thought I had mastered over my life. Previously I has successfully juggled many balls in the air every day. And suddenly they all came falling down in a spectacular heap.
I strongly believe in salvaging good from bad but I struggled with finding the silver lining in the diagnosis. The fear and anxiety waiting on test results to find out if the cancer had spread were crippling and I was haunted by dark thoughts of death.
The bone scans, bloods, MRI, X-rays and other various tests were rushed through and I was given the imaging DVDs to take to my surgeon with no reports. I sat one night with a medical student friend and a bottle of wine and opened the scans one by one. “Oh my God, what is that?” I would ask my friend and she would reply “That is your heart. Normal to have a heart, sweet. Did you study biology ever?”. Part of me was sure I was going to die, and soon.
I was lucky. The cancer had not spread. The tumour was contained and I had a genetic test done that showed minimal benefit from chemotherapy assuming I had lumpectomy surgery, radiation and then take a hormone drug called Tamoxifen for the next 10 years. I have completed the radiation which entailed daily visits for six weeks.
My left breast became progressively red and blistered, the nipple black and the pain was worse than breast feeding with mastitis. The skin peeled off, I was exhausted. Dark days. I kept it together when my children were awake and either cried in the shower or stared into the dark when they were asleep.
I would not wish this journey on my worst enemy but I think I have found the silver lining and my dearest hope over and above the cancer being gone for good is that I hold onto these lessons:
1. Letting go
My life before breast cancer was highly organised, disciplined and controlled. Every spare moment was productive. I saw clients back-to-back, I ferried my daughters to activities, I crammed my weekends with social events and I had multiple “To Do” lists for each facet of my life.
I have spent the past 6 months going where medical people tell me to go, doing what they tell me to do and waiting. The radiation and medication have made me extremely tired and my brain is simply not functioning the way it used to.
I forget things, lots of things, and lose my train of thought. I look at the washing on the line and just leave it there for another day. I returned to work three weeks after surgery, in an advanced state of denial, and kept on trying to be the old me but finally accepted I was not. The definition of stupidity is doing the same things the same way and expecting a different outcome. Perhaps I could be a new version of me that was just easier?
For a while, I didn’t do very much with my time. I would go to radiation treatment each day. Come home and do some household chores and then rest. For hours. I maybe read a book, listened to music, played the piano, I even started a painting.
I then picked my girls up from school and spent time with them. And it was a revelation. Control can be an illusion and letting go of it was liberating. I realised that my worth did not hinge upon my career or accumulating achievements, on having everything perfectly under control.
2. Why me?
Why not me? That is the profound answer I have come up with to answer this most difficult of questions. Bad things happen to good people and life is not fair. The test is genuinely is how we cope with the adversity thrown at us and what we become when we come out of the end of it if indeed we do.
I am proud of how I have coped with having breast cancer. I have remained psychologically intact, albeit bruised and battered, and allowed myself to be vulnerable. I have dealt with the spectre of dying and have my affairs in order just in case. My ashes will be made into diamonds for my children. I also now have a “Bucket List” and I am crossing things off one by one. I leave for Africa in a few weeks on safari with my father and can hardly contain my excitement at being alive. My first holiday ever without children.
The purpose of life I have decided is not to be happy. It is to realise our potential, to love and to be loved, to do new things and take calculated risks. I do not want to get to the end of my life, be it next year or in 40 years, and have regrets. The biggest regret is the things we did not say or do.
3. Asking for support
I have never been good at asking for or accepting help. I have asked people to come to appointments with me, to pick up my children, to come and sit with me while I cry. I have never been good at crying either and I have had crying jags that lasted hours since being diagnosed.
I had friends over one day and as they were leaving, I slid to the floor and could not get up I was sobbing so hard. They bundled the girls and I up and took us to their home and looked after us, me weakly protesting I was fine. The loss of control and identity associated with melting down was soul destroying but their care and unconditional love was soothing to my very soul. It was OK to not be OK sometimes.
So many wonderful people have offered to help and I am learning to say “Yes, thank you, that would be lovely”. And it has made me and my relationships with those I care about stronger, not weaker. Sometimes we have to ask for what we need and accept being vulnerable.
In the blur of normal life, I think we are all guilty of wanting more. We forget to be grateful for what we have, and at its most fundamental, that is life. I would love to be able to write that I am now genuinely grateful for my life, but this would not be entirely true just yet. I slip into denial at times and fall back on old habits but I am learning. I have returned to work in the past few weeks and have found that my experience informs my counselling with clients.
I feel tired and cranky and nauseous on the medication, but I am back at work and resuming my life. I feel privileged to have my work, my children, my relationship. My partner of 18 months has heart failure and had a life-threatening ruptured appendix in December. We have been through more in our time together than many couples in the entirety of their relationship and I love him even more.
I am grateful for the immense generosity of my parents, my friends and my boyfriend, who have given of their time, money and emotional energy. The parents at my children’s school who delivered us meals. My work colleagues who kept my business going and acquaintances who have contacted me to express their concern. I have let go of the disappointment I felt over those people who I expected to be there for me but were not.
I have also found myself grateful of things I took for granted. For my beautiful children, a vase of flowers in the hallway, a good cup of coffee, a flock of birds on my walk or the ability to pay the bills. I am grateful I am not dead. Mindfulness and gratitude let us stay in the present and wards of anxiety, which is living in the wreckage of our future.
We all need insurance, financially and physically. Going to the doctor if you are at all concerned about anything to do with your health is a form of insurance. Be an assertive and informed health-care consumer. Have income insurance. Without income protection, my stress levels would be sky high and life would be much harder for my children and I. Insurance can also mean having money saved for a rainy day, having an education and skills that enable you to change jobs and earn a reasonable income and having a network of social support.
I obviously do not know what the future will hold. My chance of dying from breast cancer related illness is now higher than average but I am so lucky. I am lucky to be alive and so are you. Every day we are not in the ground is a good day, a chance to remake ourselves and our lives into things of value and beauty. Tragedy and trauma can have a silver lining. Sometimes it is hard to find the silver linings and even harder to hold on to them but I am holding on tight.
Samantha is a psychologist, business owner, coach and writer and is passionate about working with individuals and companies to realise their potential and implement meaningful change. She also hopes to be a breast cancer survivor so she can be a grandmother one day. She is planning to write a book about the psychological impact of getting diagnosed with breast cancer but for now, is planting pansies and playing the piano.