Support throughout the cancer process is critical and I was extremely blessed in this department.
Family and Friends
From the moment I was diagnosed and shared the news, I was surrounded by love and support to an extent I’ve never know (or needed). I continue to be humbled by the number of people who truly cared about how I was doing and still care, several years later. Before my hysterectomy I was worried and asked mom, “What if nobody has prayers left for me?” My anesthetist for that surgery was an incredibly handsome angel – apparently, they do!
Prayers = answered. I chronicled my interaction with him. If you feel like laughing and swooning in equal measure, read Love in the OR at this link.
I knew that having a friend or family member with me at appointments and chemo would be necessary if I was going to make it through. After my first chemo, I was shocked by the immediacy of the symptoms. It hurt… bad. I told mom, “This is gonna kill me. I can’t do this seven more times. I’m gonna die.” She was so calm and steady when she replied, “You’re not going anywhere. You will not die.” I don’t know if deep down she doubted her words, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to hear. I clung to her confidence and used it to battle my rising fear.
Even though chemo was brutal, I have many fond memories:
- A friend sneaking a doughnut into my purse to celebrate finishing yet another blooddraw
- Laughing during the many hours in the chemo chair (half of my chemo sessions were more than five hours… each!)
- Watching the Flintstones with my grandmother while eating a cold cut sandwich, made just the same as when I was younger
- Hearing stories of a little girl who prayed for me every single night and prayed to give my doctors strength, too
- Getting Starbucks from my aunt at the best possible moments
- Receiving tons of loving messages
- All the hand holding (there was a lot)
- Visits from fur friends, because who doesn’t love cuddling a Great Dane?
As with anything, balance is essential – it’s okay to say no if you don’t feel like seeing people on a particular day.
You aren’t obligated to receive guests and your loved ones wouldn’t want to impose either. For me, the weekends following chemo were “off” times and I would only allow family and close friends to visit. The pain was too much to handle and I decided to let go of the guilt. Being your authentic self is so important! And some days, your authentic self is exhausted, sore and needs space.
I think I summarized it best when a friend and I were cozy at my house after chemo. We were laughing about something as I braced myself for the nausea to set in and I turned to her and said, “You know – chemo and pain aside – this has been a really great day.”
The Medical Team
I know it sounds crazy, but I smile when I think about my medical team. Each one was a collaborative relationship that enhanced my knowledge of that step in the process. The warmth and support of both the staff and doctors was unexpected, but very welcome! To this day, I get hugs when I enter their offices for checkups.
The surgeon who performed my double mastectomy was also the doctor who told me I had cancer. Before my last appointment with him, I attempted to gather my thoughts so that I could express to him how much his expertise and positive demeanor meant to me. When the moment came I was overwhelmed. I teared up as he said he was proud of me and wished me “the best of everything good in this life.” I shook his hand when I should have given him a hug. I’m thankful that it’s his kind face I see when I think back on the moment I was told the results of the biopsy that changed my life. I blogged about the visit, including a chance encounter with a woman waiting for her breast lump biopsy results. Read more at this link.
My plastic surgeon was also a perfect fit for me. We talked about such intimate things – breast size, texture, sex, femininity. We delved into the nitty gritty, but found humour in the most serious moments. I was in my surgical robes waiting to go in for my first mastectomy and reconstruction. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. (When I was on the operating table, I was shaking so hard that only my ankles, butt and shoulders touched the cold steel.) Before entering the operating room, she needed to do markups on my chest – where is the natural cleavage line? What kind of cleavage would I like? How high should the implant be? She said, “Okay let’s put an X on the left breast” (the one we were removing and replacing). I screamed out, “WAIT… unless X means ‘leave the breast alone.’” She froze and the small group of us stared wide eyed at each other. She replied, “Oh my god she could be right.” We all burst out laughing. Imagine mixing that up?! I can’t even.
The strongest connection I have is with my medical oncologist. I wasn’t exaggerating when I described chemo as brutal. Chemo, no matter the type, is poison. You poison your body over and over to shake up your cells and prevent cancer from forming in the future. In my case, I was young and thought that chemo wouldn’t be aggressive. It ended up the complete opposite – they went hard on me because I was young and they knew that I could take it. I couldn’t have made it through those seven treatments without my oncologist. He saw me at my lowest, most painful and horrible moments. There were appointments where I would try to negotiate ways around the pain (there weren’t any). There were days when I told him that my body couldn’t withstand many more rounds. I went to him with questions and topics for discussion and he always took the time to have an open dialogue. He never missed an opportunity to reassure or support me. I trusted him with my life – I still do – and that trust is what made all the difference. He made all the difference. The day I’m discharged from his care will be a very sad day indeed.
Your health is just that – yours. Advocate for yourself! Ask questions and discuss the answers. Collaborating helps both doctors and patients alike. I detest pity – I refuse to give or receive it. Moments of doubt, fear, sadness, anger or regret? Sure. Pity? Never. To me, it’s a useless emotion.
Prior to beginning chemo, you must attend Chemotherapy Education. If you think I tried getting out of it, you’re right. I decided I wanted to attend on my own. Friends and family had been great about attending all my appointments, and I knew that I could handle this one solo. I walked in to the room and it was full of people – none of them near my age. As usual. I approached the woman with the clipboard and gave her my name. She replied by asking me who I was supporting. I gave her my name again and pointed to the chart. She asked me a second time who I was there to support. I said, myself, pointed to my name on the list and asked for my education package. I was irritated that she didn’t clue in sooner. Her face dropped and she handed over the file. I ended up sitting next to the only other person in the room who didn’t have anyone with them. She was a 50 something going through her second battle with cancer. We were a perfect, somewhat sarcastic, pair – she even took my question seriously when the topic of sex during chemo came up and I blurted out, “REALLY?!”
Having the support of friends, family and doctors is more helpful than words can describe. But perhaps even more important is showing up for yourself. Cancer patients or non-cancer patients – we all have moments in our lives where we’re forced to put up or shut up. Unfortunately, in the case of cancer patients, those moments are plentiful. I’ve felt my blood pour down my back and the intense sting of my skin being cauterized. I’ve tasted chemo and had a drain pulled from my body that was longer than my forearm. I’ve been on a surgical table alone and cold more times than I ever thought possible.
Was I in pain? Did I cry? Was I angry, resentful and terrified? Yes to all. But I showed up.
The point isn’t how deep you dig to find your strength, it’s that you dig at all that counts.
During chemo and the surgeries, supporting myself came mostly in the form of managing physical pain and making extremely difficult decisions. Now, self-care comes in the form of psychotherapy. After quite a bit of searching, I found a therapist who I click wonderfully with and my biweekly appointments with her have become a beautiful part of my self-love routine. She guides, reassures and teaches me even more ways to support myself. #progress
Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com
Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna.