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By: Adriana Ermter

“You have breast cancer,” says my doctor. His tone is loose and light, like he’s telling me his wife packed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Or maybe I just think that, because the awake part of my brain feels like it’s floating outside of my body.

There’s no one to turn to ground me. Not a husband or a boyfriend. I’m single, so I’m here alone, sitting on a hard chair inside the hospital’s crappy broom closet-like room, my eyes fixed on the computer screen’s black and white image of the tumor inside my breast tissue. I grip the edge of the desk next to me. I’m trying to steady myself, my thoughts, but I feel so far away I’m not sure it’s working. Slowly, I lift my right hand, palm open and ask the doctor to stop talking. I need a minute.

It’s not that I don’t understand his words, I do; I’ve already processed them. But they feel separate from me, impossible even. It’s weird, but the memory of my now ex-husband telling me he doesn’t love me any more flashes vividly through my mind. I felt those words right away. When they fell from his mouth, it was like hundreds of heavy, red bricks tumbling down on top of me, smashing me into the ground, burying almost nine years of happily-ever-after hopes and dreams beneath a deep, dark pile of sadness that I didn’t crawl out of until last year.

Losing my person and myself

Back then, during the separation, the 18 months of reconciliation and therapy and finally, the divorce in 2015, I lost my person and I lost myself. My unhappiness consumed me, temporarily turning me into someone I didn’t like or even recognize. My creativity vanished, too and with it my ability to read, write and edit. Not great, considering this is how I make a living. And yet, somehow, through it all, I knew what being divorced could, would eventually look like.

This is different. Cancer doesn’t come with a comparable Le Divorce RomCom or Eat, Pray Love memoir to aspire to. I don’t know what having cancer means for me. How sick I’ll be, if I’ll eventually need chemotherapy or if I can continue to work, pay my mortgage, pick up toilet paper on the way home and take care of my beloved cat, Trixie-Belle. The only thing I know for sure is that unlike my divorce—because in the end, my ex and I joined forces pulling a Gwyn and Chris—I’m fighting breast cancer alone. And I don’t know what to do with that information.

Finding the lump

When I first found the pea-sized lump under my arm, I was alone in a hotel room in Jordan. I didn’t WhatsApp my sisters in Calgary or even tell the cameraman I was travelling with, I just made a mental note to get it checked out when I got back home. I’d just spent the past ten days, capturing heartbreaking stories from some of the Syrian and Palestinian children living in the country’s oldest and biggest refugee camp. The lump, then, seemed inconsequential in comparison.

Later, back in Toronto, I booked an appointment with my doctor and on my GP’s recommendation, went to a breast clinic in downtown Toronto where, initially, all of my new doctors said the lump was nothing. So I didn’t tell anyone, that is, beyond texting my sisters that I was fine. Now six months later, after a barrage of follow-up appointments and countless more ultrasounds, mammograms and biopsies, things have clearly changed.

Living alone

I wish I had my person—to be clear I don’t mean my ex, but rather a new person—sitting next to me, hearing those four life-changing words at the same time as I did.

Normally, I’m okay with being single, but being diagnosed with cancer and being single…this feels wrong. I want to go insular and hide out in my condo with my cat, but my practical side knows I need to ask for help.

This is hard for me. I like to think I’m independent and strong. I’m supposed to be able to do everything by myself. Yet, if I had my person they would understand this and not need me to ask them for help. They would just automatically come with with me to my appointments and pick up the slack by popping to the grocery store for bread or eggs. My person would tell me to quit my job and concentrate on healing. They would handle the bills and take over the cleaning and cooking. But I’m alone. Trixie is comforting in her furry, spoiled and adorable way, but even I know she’s not enough.

Choosing my people

Two and a half months ago, sitting with the doctor in the crappy hospital room made me realize I have to make a choice. I can wish to be one of the hundreds of other women with breast cancer sitting in the waiting room with their person, but it’s not going to change things. I have to choose to find the positive in every diagnosis, test, surgery and treatment no matter who’s standing next to me. It’s the only thing that will make me feel powerful and in control.

Yes, this means I have to re-tell information and group text my family and close friends to keep them in the loop and yes, I’d rather hunker down with the lights off watching The Handmaids Tale with my cat. But every day, I force myself to reach out and when I do, the outpouring of love and support practically brings me to my knees.

When I told my family about my surgery, my sister Alida flew out immediately. She went with me to the hospital and took care of me afterwards. She fed me pain medication, cooked soups and quietly sat next to me while I slept. She even vacuumed and mopped my floors. My other sister Elizabeth, along with my parents, checked in on Face Time every day. On the day of my surgery, one of my besties kept my sister company at the hospital and then later drove us home afterwards, while three more BFFs made a schedule to visit and bring homemade meals after Alida returned to Calgary

This is now

Now that I’m entering the treatment phase, my family and the same friends who rallied behind me during my divorce when I lost my person, are here for me again. They’re making sure I don’t I have to do this by myself. They are my people.

Of course, I still have moments when I feel alone, like recently, when I lay on a surgical table and a doctor permanently tattooed four tiny, black dots on my body in preparation for the radiation treatments. It’s my first tattoo and while I’d nonchalantly talked about getting it done, a few silent tears trickled down my cheeks during the process. I can’t explain why.

I still don’t know what my future looks like, but every day I think about the thousands of courageous women who’ve come before me, as well as the team of love standing behind me. None of them are my person, but they are my people and they’re showing me that even though I’m single, I can do this and I will survive.


Read more stories on Relationships + Dating here!

By Cassandra Umbiraco

Let’s be honest – social media has its ups, its downs and its downright uglies. I’m a big believer that when used incorrectly or too often, social media causes depression, sadness, jealousy and resentment. There is no such thing as mindless scrolling – we take in every image we see and caption we read. The social space is a place where you can find support and love, hatred and ignorance. But, when used correctly, I think it helps with the cancer experience to both provide knowledge and connect people.

The Reveal

I delayed my reveal on social media until about three months after my diagnosis. During that time, I was busy either prepping for surgery, recovering from surgery, having chemo or healing after chemo. I was nervous about bumping into people in public because then they would know I was sick and word would inevitably spread. If I could, I wanted to have control over word getting out. Although at that point, a ton of people already knew.

After I posted on Facebook, the outpouring of love and support I received was (once again) humbling. I spoke out about my diagnosis more for breast screening awareness than anything else. But the kind comments and supportive messages gave me hope nonetheless.

I also experienced the ugly side effect of sharing the news. I received several messages from acquaintances (even people who I didn’t have as “friends” and heard through the grapevine) who made my diagnosis about them by drudging up the past. I’m not sure what motivated them to get in touch and ask to talk to me about our relationship or lack thereof. Perhaps guilt? Who knows. And really, who cares? Regardless of their intentions, I declined. Not out of anger or hatred – quite the opposite. I had closed those chapters in my life and was indifferent. I had no desire to rehash the past or receive guilt-fuelled sympathy.

Perhaps the learning here is to remove anyone from social media who you wouldn’t reply to. #nationalunfriendday

CaringBridge

I knew immediately after I was diagnosed that it would be impossible for my mother and I to keep family and friends up-to-date on my health – many (!) people wanted to be kept in the loop and that fact is still humbling. Luckily, a friend recommended a website – CaringBridge. The site works much like a blog, only it’s private and friends and family have to be invited to view it. This was a perfect solution for me, since we shared extremely personal information and I wasn’t ready to share those details with the world. Friends could comment and leave messages, which boosted my mood on numerous occasions. I can’t recommend this site enough! If you or someone you know could benefit, check it out at www.CaringBridge.org

#NoHairSelfie Campaign

I’ve blogged about this campaign before but I will say that to me, the #NoHairSelfie campaign represents the worst part of social media and cancer. Although I’m sure it was created with the best intentions, I still can’t get over the images of enthusiastic faux bald people. Losing your hair is a slow and devastating process – quite the opposite experience of “removing” your hair in an app.

My thoughts from my original blog still stand…

Instead of posting your ridiculous “bald” picture:

  • Reach out to someone you know who has cancer (or their family) and find out how you can make their life a bit easier. (Home cooked meals? A ride to chemo? Going to the hospital with them for appointments or treatment?)
  • Volunteer at a cancer centre. (They always need volunteers for a vast amount of tasks.)
  • Knit caps and drop them off at cancer centres. (They’re always looking for hats to give to patients.)
  • Grow your hair long and donate it to make a beautiful wig.
  • Even if you don’t know someone going through cancer treatment, send a prayer out into the universe to those who are.

Rabbit Holes and Resentment

After I finished chemo and returned to real life, I found it difficult to look at people’s posts. It’s like I suddenly saw everything I had missed. I wasn’t cut off from the world during treatment and I partook in “normal” activities, but I realized just how sick I was when I saw the things I had missed out on. I simply didn’t have the stamina to keep up with a regular day. Thankfully, these feelings were short-lived.

One thing I’m very cautious of is not going down the cancer rabbit hole. I follow a few cancer thrivers on Instagram and I find the posts extremely inspiring. On a rare occasion, one post has led to another and then another and suddenly I’m viewing a profile of a young woman who passed away from cancer. She looks like me, she sounds like me, she had hopes and dreams and friends and family and now she’s gone. Even as I write this, I can feel the frenzied pace return. That frantic downward spiral of fear. The cancer rabbit hole is a scary thing – you never know what you’re going to find. Seek out inspiration and find hope or love in the posts you come across, but beware that you don’t trigger a sustained state of panic and fear. 

Support

Since joining the Rethink Breast Cancer community, I’ve found support like no other. I’m part of a couple of private groups and consider myself a silent observer. I rarely comment on posts, but I check in and read updates and comments. If I can’t relate, it shows me a new side of things. If I can relate, it reminds me that I’m not alone. And sometimes, that’s all you need. That’s all there is.


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. 

Rethink is proud to republish the original blog posts of Leanne Coppen first featured by Chatelaine. Leanne passed away in 2011 from metastatic breast cancer and we are honoured that her friends and family have allowed us to share her words here on the Rethink blog.

Torturous as yesterday’s post was to write, I had to do it. Thanks to everyone who managed to pluck up the courage to reply to the unrepliable with comments and e-mails.  Apologies to everyone who felt paralytic or overwhelmed (I think that’s all of us) but this was only ever going to be a very bumpy ride. Lifejacket is under the seat and there’s a barf bag in the seat pocket in front of you – let’s hope we don’t need them too often.

For the moment, the sun is actually beginning to emerge from behind the dark clouds for a change: we have found and are applying for a clinical trial at last!  The study sounds promising — the most promising of all the experimental drug trials we were able to find — and there is a study site in Montreal, which isn’t totally ideal, but it could be worse, it could be much farther from home.  It could be outside Canada.  I’m not sure how swift the enrolment process will be or how we are going to handle the financials or logistics, but I’m already feeling so much better and more hopeful just knowing that there is a plan underway at last.

It’s amazing how much difference a little glimmer of sunlight can make.  We are going to be doing something.  And it might actually work!!

Unfortunately, getting to this point has been excruciating and, as anyone who read yesterday’s post can attest, the process has forced me to face the grimmest realities.  Among them, and second in grimness only to confronting my own mortality, was the realization that our medical system completely fails in its support of patients with cancers that don’t respond to standard treatment.

The transition from a supportive, comprehensive cancer-care system to the bleak no-man’s-land of post-standard-treatment was so sudden and jarring that it took me a while to realize that I had in fact been left to my own defenses.  Apparently the system just isn’t designed to take you any further than approved drugs and standard treatments, so if you have to go the non-standard route, you have to navigate it yourself.

Meaning it is up to the patient to research and choose her own clinical trial.  The patient, who in the majority of cases does not have a medical degree.  The patient, who is reeling from the news that there are no more treatments for her.  The patient, who is probably grappling with gigantic questions like “Am I going to die?”  The patient, who hopefully speaks English fluently, knows her own medical history intimately and is handy with the Internet.

Aside from the basic impracticalities of this situation, it has the psychological effect of leaving the patient out in the cold.  It sends a message of hopelessness.  It says: your cancer is so bad, we’ve given up.

I believe I wasn’t totally abandoned only because I and my family reached out repeatedly for help to my oncologist, the hospital social worker, my amazing family doctor, a clinical trials nurse, and many, many other people.  I’m deeply grateful to all of them for their help, but I’m still stunned and alarmed at the totally unacceptable failure of a system I believed in and trusted with my life.

But enough about all that for now. Really, I can be all stunned and alarmed later.  Right now I just want to enjoy the sunshine.

After a significant, life-changing event how do you navigate your career and are there any good tips to do so?

This is a two-part series about how to reassess your career after a life-changing event. Click here to read Rethinking Your Career Part 1: Change After a Life-Changing Diagnosis or Illness.

In this second part, Lauren shares 3 strategies to help navigate a new career post cancer.

1. When looking for work, should someone address cancer in a cover letter or in the interview?

I’m not an employment lawyer or a Human Resources expert so the below is my personal opinion.

I can understand that one doesn’t want to be discriminated against during the interview process. This would be a compelling reason not to disclose a prior illness.

As a recruiter, several of the candidates and clients that I worked with had undergone treatment for a life-threatening illness at some point in their professional lives. I found that sharing this information with me helped to build our relationship and helped me represent them more accurately and compassionately.

While I don’t think it’s necessary to disclose your illness in a cover letter or even in the first or second interview, it may be appropriate and strategic to do so at some point during the process depending on your comfort level.

Employers want to get to know you and they want you to be authentic. Building trust is part of the interviewing process and your interviewer will get a sense if you are avoiding topics or shying away from certain questions.

There are likely time gaps in your resume due to cancer treatments and recovery. The interviewer will have questions about those times if they’re not explained and you don’t want them making up answers in their head.

In addition, it may help employers understand your motivations for the career change and some of the requests you make as an employee.

So unless you think it will put you at a disadvantage during your interview, I vote for transparency.

2. What are some things to consider when going back to work?

You may want to spend some time journaling on questions like the ones below. That way you can figure out what’s most important to you as you head back into your work life.

When you consider yourself back at work, ask yourself:

What’s most important to me now? How do I want to show up? How do I want to be? How can I honour my needs and also be a great team member? Am I aligned with my values and what I care about? How can I develop good supportive relationships at work?

3. Are there resources for people?

There are tons of career change resources out there. Here are some to get you started.

What Colour is your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers is a classic book that helps you uncover your strengths, values, skills and interests.

I’m also really keen on the Clifton StrengthsFinder. It’s an online assessment that helps you uncover your strengths.

Another well-known career change book is called The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success.

 


Lauren Malach is a career coach. As a former executive recruiter, Lauren got really good at answering the strategic and tactical questions– how to interview well, how to craft your resume, how to source potential opportunities. And while that still interests her, what interests her, even more, is how to help clients live better lives. She believes we spend most of our lives at work, and if we can improve our outlook on our work, we may increase our overall life satisfaction.

Now her clients are individuals who want to create more fulfillment, engagement or clarity in their career path. She also works with proactive leaders who want to influence their teams with intention.

Email: info@laurenmalachcoaching.com
Website: https://www.laurenmalachcoaching.com/

Esthetics can be so much more than a visit to the spa for a facial. Meet oncology esthetics: treatments that are specially designed to meet the needs of those living with cancer. Think calming facials and massage with modified techniques. We asked Jennifer Brodeur, a Montreal-based skin strategist and celeb skin guru (she’s worked with Oprah and Michelle Obama) all about this specific category that she’s so passionate about.

How did you become interested in oncology esthetics?

My initial love for skincare was fueled by an extraordinary woman Gillian McStay, the mum of my childhood best friend.  Sadly, she passed away from cancer when we were teens. It deeply affected me. However, it took another loss before I made the decision to get involved. My godmother Ulla (who was a force to be reckoned with) also lost her fight with cancer. I was asked to do her eulogy and, as I spoke, I could feel the anger rising inside of me. I knew then that I wanted to do something to help. I remembered her talking about how itchy her scalp was, and all of the other undesirable side effects from the treatments she was undergoing. It was then that I started my search and was driven to get involved in Oncology Training International trainings. I wanted to focus on a number of these aspects to help people with cancer cope with disease-related changes that can affect their body image and physical appearance during treatment. Oncology esthetics is an integrative approach to cancer care, which takes into consideration the importance of the dimensions of feminity, a patient’s identity and helps them regain a positive relationship with their body.

What kind of certification is required to practice oncology esthethics?

An esthetics degree is required to enroll in the class. We also have nurses who take the course. Once the class is taken, there is a test to obtain the certificate. We also urge students to do refresher classes every couple of years as things change rapidly. It is also imperative that students do a certain amount of hours working with oncology esthetics patients in order to gain hands-on experience.

How does oncology esthetics differ from traditional esthetic treatments?

From product selections to treatment protocols, it’s vital that the appropriate steps are taken to ensure a safe treatment. Advanced trainings are also crucial as cancer fighters and survivors can benefit from most spa/beauty and wellness services, everything from acupuncture, massage, essentrics, yoga and facials. When you consider as many as four in 10 people will get cancer in their lifetimes, there is a demand based on this staggering reality. It is estimated that there could be 23.6 million new cases of cancer each year by 2030.

Why is this service an important part of your job and life?

Working with women, helping them see their true beauty from within even in the most difficult and vulnerable moments means the world to me. That all starts with empathy, touch and education. Aging is a privilege denied to so many and we take it for granted. This is why I refuse to use the “AA word” (anti-aging).

What are the biggest lessons your work has taught you?

We have a tendency to worry too much. When you work alongside women who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but still manage to wake up every morning with a smile, I think we can all learn from that. It takes unimaginable strength and perseverance. I have a much better perspective on what’s really important.

What kind of innovation is taking place in oncology esthetics that people would be excited about?

A lot of progress is happening in Europe. Hospitals are getting on board, thanks to the incredible work being done by Angela Noviello in Italy. Clinical studies are being conducted to show the benefits of self-care. We seem to be creating a change, which I am very excited about. We want these changes to come to Canada. I would love to work more in collaboration with oncologists, therapists etc. Together we can make a difference.

Can you talk about the importance of safety in the oncology esthetics space?

Safety is key. It’s important to address the challenges and constraints of treating patients with cancer in a spa setting. Wellness treatments must be modified to accommodate all of these challenges and constraints. Bedding and some linens need to be modified as well. Treatment protocols and products being used all need to be taken into consideration.

An example would be the NADIR count (the blood cell count, particularly white blood cell count and platelet count, which is a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation therapy). If the count is too low, it’s best to reschedule.

What kind of beauty products do you recommend for those undergoing treatment (or even post-cancer treatment)?

What’s left out of the product is as important as what’s in the product. I recommend the same for both men and women who are undergoing treatment and even post treatment. My philosophy is always less is more. I recommend staying away from any ingredients that can be a potential risk to the acid mantle (skin) as they cause sensitivity, inflammation etc. For example: silicones, chemical screens, sensitizing colorants/perfumes, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, essential oils and drying alcohols. Also, it’s not the time to exfoliate excessively.

When I created my skincare line, peoni, I had oncology esthetics in mind. I wanted all health challenged skins (from Cancer, Lupus, celiac, MS, etc.) to have safe skincare and it influenced the ingredients that I included in the products.

 


 Jennifer Brodeur, founder of JB Skin Guru, is a female entrepreneur, teacher, and skin strategist with over 20 years of experience in the beauty industry. She is also the French director and educator at Oncology Training International. For more info. on oncology esthetic services or the Peoni skincare line, visit jbskinguru.com

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Rethink is proud to republish the original blog posts of Leanne Coppen first featured by Chatelaine. Leanne passed away in 2011 from metastatic breast cancer and we are honoured that her friends and family have allowed us to share her words here on the Rethink blog.

It used to come mostly at night, but lately it’s had the audacity to creep in even in bright sunshine. I’ll be going about my business when I get a sudden flutter in my belly, a lump in my throat. Silent flashes of anxiety. Brief, lightning-clear moments of reckoning: My god, is this really happening to me? Something shifts. Everything around me takes on a slightly unreal aspect, becomes slightly less solid. Fear is on the threshold. Don’t think it, don’t let it in. Everything I see is coloured by it; it settles over every surface like a layer of poisonous dust. Everything I do and say, every move I make stirs it up, unsettles it, thickens the atmosphere with it so I can’t ignore it anymore.

Am I going to die?

Sometimes, by the time I am in bed at night, and the house is quiet, I can barely breathe. Please please make it stop take the cancer away that’s enough now please just let me have my body back my life back let me live…  I try to distract myself, push it down, meditate away from it. Then I let it come, cry, try not to go crazy. My husband holds me in his arms and kisses my hair and wipes my tears away with a corner of the duvet as the Ativan melts under my tongue. Slowly my breathing steadies.  My heart stops pounding so fast. I’m exhausted now and my body will sleep, its only true refuge from the fear.

But it will be back, again and again. No matter how good my good days.  No matter how angry my anger.  The fear keeps coming back.  Am I going to die?

How can it not come back?  How can anyone around me, or anyone who reads this blog, pretend they haven’t gone there in their heads, asked the same question? Let’s admit it. Let’s not pretend that we don’t occasionally get stopped in our raging, planning, hoping, fighting tracks by the thought that this cancer might just kill me, and much sooner than we’d ever imagined.

The thing is, it can feel like even admitting to the fear – admitting that I wonder if this is going to kill me (meaning kill me soon) – is somehow giving up. But I’m not giving up.  I’m not. I won’t, I promise.  I feel like I have to be very clear about that because the theory goes that if you get it in your head that this thing is going to beat you then it does and you die.

I’m not entirely convinced of the truth of that theory – and I certainly don’t think it’s fair to deny someone the right to confront their own fears of death on the basis that thinking about it makes it come true – but in case the people who love me believe it, I’m telling you all now: I’m not quitting.  There’s a difference between letting myself consider the possibility that I might die and calling it quits.

What I want is to face the fear and then send it back down into the reeking depths from which it comes.  But facing it is such a tall order!  When I admit to myself that yes, this cancer could kill me, the first thing I think of is how hard that would be on my husband, my mom, dad, brother, family, friends, and yes (insert knife into heart here) my little girl. Causing every single person I love pain and loss and sadness is just about the worst fate I can imagine. It makes me feel helplessness and sorrow on a level that is almost physically painful.

That’s the number one reason thinking about my own death sucks – because of how I imagine it would hurt the people I love.

I actually don’t think I’m afraid of death itself. Pain and suffering, yes (definitely, unequivocally.)  But death?  Everyone is going to die.  We know this.  We just can’t wrap our heads around it. It’s hard to be afraid of something you can’t wrap your head around. It’s just too big a concept, just too miraculous and natural and kind of peaceful to actually be scary in and of itself.

What is scary and awful is the idea of the departure gate: saying goodbye to everyone and everything I love.  And it’s less scary than it is just plain awful.  Especially if it’s preceded by suffering and making everyone around you watch helplessly, knowing that they’ll just endure a whole new kind of suffering when you eventually do die… Ugh. Now that’s torment.

So why think about it?  And why, for the love of god, torture everyone by writing about it?

Because it is unfortunately part of my reality now, and if I don’t think about it or talk and write about it, it will drive me crazy.  Like wandering around grocery stores in bare feet and pajamas crazy.  Like putting vegetable soup in the washing machine crazy.  Crazy crazy. Certifiable.

Trying to avoid thinking about it or talking about it just makes it worse.  It makes me feel more isolated, which in turn makes me feel more afraid.

So I’m for tackling this topic head-on and not side-stepping any harsh realities of my so-far untreatable extremely aggressive life-threatening jerkface cancer.  Which means that lately I’ve been saying out loud to the people closest to me “I’m afraid I’m going to die.”

These are not easy conversations to have, not only because it’s really frigging difficult to talk when we’re crying and blowing our noses so much, but also because there’s not a lot to say about it.  Of course we have all thought about it.  We don’t like to think about it, and we want to believe that I will recover and live a long, healthy life – which I plan to do – but the thought that I might die has crossed our minds, all of us.

I’m just asking that we let the fear come, look it in its beady little eyes as best we can, and allow ourselves to cry about it, acknowledge it, be angry about it – whatever – just as long as we don’t try to ignore it.

Somehow I believe I can make the idea of dying just a little less terrorizing if I let myself get familiar with it.  If I can do this I believe that fear won’t colour everything, that it won’t always be lurking and looming, and I might be able to slip out of its grip and move away from it, toward other thoughts. I might actually get to enjoy my life fully, and be completely engrossed in all the things about it that make me want to live it for a long, long time.

At the very least, when I’m with the people I love, fear shouldn’t be allowed to pull up a chair and sit at the table with us, scratching its belly and belching in our faces as we all try furiously to ignore it.  If it shows up we can say, “We see you.  You’re ugly and you stink.  Now get out of here.”

If we’re going to sometimes be afraid, at least we can be afraid together. I want for it to be okay to talk about death as just one of the possibilities because it is one of the possibilities and if I don’t face it, it’s going to make me crazy. It is.  But we can also spend a lot of time talking about the other possibilities too, like beating this thing, finding the unconventional treatment that actually works for unconventional me, and imagining together those happy days in the future when I bore everyone who comes within hearing range with the story that ends with the line “…and then the doctors said, We don’t know exactly what happened, but the cancer is just GONE.”

For a cancer patient, the day you hear the words “You Have Cancer” is a day you’ll never forget.  After hearing the three words no one wants to hear, author Alana Somerville shares her story on finding meaning after a life-changing diagnosis.


“You have cancer”

The day that I heard the words “You have cancer” was obviously life changing, but it’s not actually where my story begins. That was the day that I had to accept what I was already thinking, and begin my battle.

The moment I found my lump was a defining moment in this journey, and it could easily be given the prize for the day that “actually changed my life.”

You see, there is a period of time, a process, during which your mind mentally prepares itself for those fateful words, “You have cancer.”  For some people, this time frame is shorter, and for others it’s longer. Usually tests need to be done in order to actually confirm a diagnosis. Although people often know something is wrong with their body, it may take months or even years for that positive cancer diagnosis.

My “waiting period” was about three weeks. Three weeks from feeling that lump, and wondering if it was cancer, until I heard those dreaded words.

For three weeks, those words played over and over in my head, and so, in a way, it almost wasn’t a shock when I heard the official diagnosis. For three weeks, I had prepared myself for that moment, while hoping and praying the whole time that I would hear instead that everything was fine. But somehow I think I just knew.

Similar to the grieving process, there were many stages during this three-week period that I went through.

First stage was denial

Of course, the first stage was denial. However, my denial didn’t prevent me from going to get the lump checked out.

Sometimes people are afraid. They have something called “Ostrich Syndrome.” They bury their head in the sand, so to speak, and figure that if they simply don’t go to see a doctor, they won’t get any bad news. But that’s just extending the process and delaying a diagnosis—sometimes resulting in the diagnosis coming too late.

After denial, came anger

After denial, came anger, as I was entirely frustrated that I was dealing with such a thing. Even though I hadn’t been officially diagnosed, I was angry that I had to deal with it, and angry that I didn’t have all of the answers right away. I bargained with myself—a lot. I told myself that if I didn’t end up having cancer, I would clean up my act. I would be healthier, from that moment forward. I would exercise more, eat better, and de-stress regularly. I told myself that this was just a close call, and I would make sure it didn’t happen again.

Then there was an acceptance…

I had spent three weeks worrying and wondering if it actually was cancer, and when I found out that, yes, it was, although I was upset, it was almost a relief. I felt as though now I could do something about it. I had spent three weeks imagining this moment in my head, and here it was.

I am impatient. Waiting was difficult. Not knowing was tough. At least when I heard the words “You have cancer,” I could then do something about it.

And I did.


About the Author

ALANA SOMERVILLE

Alana Somerville is a mother of two, teacher, and real-estate sales representative. Never one to sit still, when she isn’t teaching, she can likely be found with her children at a hockey arena, dance rehearsal or soccer field. Her children are her number one priority, and her drive for life is greatly inspired by them. Holding on to Normal is her first book. Visit her at AlanaSomerville.com or follow her on Twitter @AlanaSomerville.

THIS IS CANSWER HIVE.  TIPS AND INSIGHTS SHARED DIRECTLY FROM RETHINK’S YOUNG WOMEN’S NETWORK (RYWN)

“Breast reconstruction is not for the faint of heart” is something we’ve heard from breast cancer patients. Unless you’ve already been through it, many patients don’t know what the process actually entails.  So we asked the CANSWER HIVE what they wish they knew about reconstruction before going through it.
Dee says:

Scar tissue adhesions take almost 18 months of consistent massage and acupuncture to avoid ending up in massive pain and limited mobility.

Desiree says:

Reconstruction is a long process. Double mastectomy with reconstruction was 6 surgeries, over 15 months, for me. You need several months healing time between each surgery.  Reconstruction will never be “perfect.” You will be uneven, and maybe single breasted for a long time, while waiting for the final results. Nothing is a quick fix.

Maja says:

Implants can cause back pain!

Jennifer says:

Reconstruction may not work after radiation. It’s not as simple as just getting implants. Also, reconstruction is NOT cosmetic surgery.

Stacey says:

Not having reconstruction is a reasonable option too. A lot of people assume you will automatically opt for reconstruction, but there’s nothing wrong if you don’t.

Lindsey says:

Get a hospital bed for home!

Sarah says:

You will be lopsided unless you have even more surgery done. It takes a long time for the implant to settle and feel like part of your body. Also, physiotherapy is your friend.

Kathleen says:

I think it’s really imperative to have an open dialogue with your plastic surgeon. Ask to see images of previous surgeries and be selective. I have had shoulder pain, verging on a frozen shoulder, and a torn rotator cuff since surgery. Massage, a Chiropractor and physiotherapy are my “new norms” for maintenance.

Lindsay says:

Your doctors tell you that you will be healed from surgery in this many weeks, in this amount of time. What they don’t tell you is that you may not have open wounds, but, your body will need adjusting for 1 to 2 years. You need time accept the new change.

Erica says:

The implants will always feel cold.

Beatrice says:

I would have almost no feeling in my chest after reconstruction. The temperature of my chest where the implants are can be significantly colder than the rest of my body.

Help us identify the research priorities for post mastectomy breast reconstruction by participating in this survey.

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful woman named Christine. She and her husband wanted a baby and she hoped and prayed for her wish to come true.

One fateful day, the universe heard her prayers. The angels met to determine which lucky baby would be delivered into her loving arms. They searched among the many souls waiting to enter this world and tried to find the child that was meant for her.

God sat by and listened with a smirk on his face. Searching wasn’t necessary because he knew exactly who belonged to Christine. He had known for years before she even spoke her wish who she was meant to spend her life with. He pictured her future daughter’s big brown eyes, dark hair and kind smile – qualities that mirrored Christine’s. He saw laughter and tears and a bond so strong and rare – a relationship he’d heard many pray for, but very few were blessed to experience.

He reluctantly pulled himself away from these visions of the future and told the angels to stop. He knew who was destined to be Christine’s daughter. In that moment, with immeasurable love and light, he sent down Cassandra.

Mom and me.

I decided to start this blog with the story above because it’s mom’s favourite. Sometimes she’ll say, “Daughter, tell me the story of when God sent you to me.” And I happily oblige.

My mother and I are extremely close. Like, Gilmore Girls close. Although mom hates the almost constant comparison and insists that she doesn’t speak at Lorelai’s frantic pace. (It’s true – thankfully, my mom is much calmer.) I understand why people draw that conclusion – we have a relationship and a closeness that is unique.

Looking back on my early years, I sympathize for my mom.  From the moment I was born via emergency C-section after 27 grueling hours of labour, I felt like I tested her patience and sanity. I was a couple of days old and she had to give me my first bath. She said all the other babies were quiet, but I fought the entire time. I clutched the sides of the basin, raised my little head and screamed at the top of my lungs. The nurses commented on my uncommon strength (“She’s very strong!”). My mom was nervous and I don’t blame her.

She said she knew then that I was strong willed and had a mind of my own. Although I’m an only child, I made up for it in energy, curiosity and constant chattering – all qualities I still possess. But when we reflect on the past, she never lets frustration or annoyance show. She might smirk and laugh, yet insists I was a good girl. In this case, I think hindsight helps!

The closeness we had when I was a child continued through my adolescent and teenage years. As I grew up, our dynamic shifted and our relationship evolved. I learned quickly that there are certain things you don’t tell your mom. Likewise, there are things your mom doesn’t want to know. #nosextalk

People would comment that we were like best friends and I’d cringe because I knew what my mother’s immediate response would be – “I’m not her FRIEND!  I’m her MOTHER!” As a single mom, I understand why she was quick to correct people. It was important that friends (and I) knew that the duties of a mother came before those of a friend. Although we had a relationship that had many qualities of a friendship, her main role was to raise me. At that point in our lives, we couldn’t have it both ways. When I was in my early twenties, a person commented that we were such good friends. I started to correct them, but mom stopped me, smiled and said, “It’s okay.  We can be friends now.” Sweet! She could officially be my bff.

Unconditional Love.

Both mom and I were very calm waiting for the results of my breast lump biopsy because we were convinced that it wasn’t cancer. My lump didn’t feel like most cancerous tumours and, after all, I was only 28 years old. I booked an appointment to receive my results and it was something I thought I could manage on my own.

I was heating up my car before work on November 12, 2013 when I received a phone call from the office of the doctor who performed my biopsy. The receptionist spoke in an urgent tone, asked me where I was and told me to come in immediately. That instant, I knew. I told them that I didn’t need to come in today because I had an appointment later in the week. (Useless attempt to delay.) She told me an appointment wasn’t necessary and to come straight in. (Shit.) My first thought – I have cancer. My second thought – get to mom.

I drove to her workplace, walked into the building and up the stairs to the room where I knew she’d be sipping her coffee and catching up with friends before her day started. I remember it perfectly. I swung open the double doors and saw her sitting there, Tim’s cup in hand, laughing at something a friend was saying. My heart broke because I knew that my presence, what is represented, would devastate her. She turned and looked at me and her pleasant expression instantly changed to one of anger. She practically hissed, “What the HELL are you doing here?” She knew, too. I explained that the doctor called and needed to see me right away.

I chatted the entire drive and listed absurd reasons why the doctor would want to see me urgently. She humoured me by listening, nodding and agreeing that maybe I was right. We both knew I was wrong.

We walked into his office and took our seats beside each other. Our fear was tangible in the small room. Suffocating. He said, “The biopsy came back and I’m sorry to tell you that you have breast cancer.” The words no sooner left his mouth and mom made a sound that I’ve never heard before. It was… Primal. I believe it’s a sound that only a mother can make. One of complete devastation and fear for her child. She doesn’t cry a lot (no judgement at all, just fact) and this made her outburst even more impactful.

When we finished the appointment and went out to the hallway, she slumped over, put her hand to the wall and said she needed a minute. I was terrified that she was going to have a heart attack. She looked overwhelmed and shattered – dazed and confused as to if the last 20 minutes happened or if it was a nightmare. I gave her a long hug and assured her I would be okay. I thought, no way am I leaving her. Not now. Not yet. I’m going to do whatever I have to do.

I haven’t seen her that way since. It’s as if all her walls were down in that moment and when we left that office, she moved forward with a strength and determination that fuelled me as well. A single focus – me getting better. Period.

On the day of my first mastectomy and reconstruction, she was almost as terrified as I was. I begged the nurses to let her stay with me until I had to go into the operating room. She and my dad sat with me, ensured I stayed warm under heated blankets and held my hands until it was time to go. I gave them long hugs and walked away. I must’ve looked back a dozen times on the walk to the room, each time seeking out my mom, who was always staring right back at me. Even as I walked through the doors, I twisted my neck to see her face one more time. Just once more. Each step was a prayer – please let me live, please let me see her face again, please don’t make me leave her, please let her come with me.

She said that watching me leave and having to let me go was one of the hardest things she’s ever done in her life. Our bond is so strong, so deep, that what you do to one is felt by the other. We both experienced the utter torture of leaving each other and the pain of not being able to go through this together.

My mom was my rock throughout the entire cancer experience, which spanned more than two years (if you count all my surgeries). She managed my horrible drains, listened when I had emotional breakdowns, made my favourite foods, took me for cupcake runs when I was feeling up to it, indulged in Netflix binging and bought me fresh tulips every single week. Most importantly, she made me laugh and feel normal. Alive. After my first chemo, I was sure that seven more would kill me. She was calm and steady in her reply and insisted that I would not die. I clung onto her words and her strength and used them throughout those horrible months.

On the night I received my diagnosis, we hugged before bedtime. We’ve hugged every night since… Almost five years later. Sometimes I cry (cancer sucks). Most times I laugh (she’s hilarious). But I always feel blessed to get that hug.

A Bond Like No Other.

Going through my cancer crap made us even closer, if that’s possible. We enjoy many of the things we used to with a newfound appreciation of getting to do them together.

As I write about our relationship, I see flashes of our lives together.  Our adventures…

Floating in the ocean for hours and loving every second of it.
Looking up at the South African night sky together, knowing as we experience it that the moment is extra special.
Running errands together on Saturday and getting cozy afterwards to watch Dateline.
Getting our nails done.
Hearing her burst into laughter while she writes one of her famous poems. #angel
Receiving text messages from her when I wake up begging me to get up and join her because she can’t wait to get our day started.
Walking down Main Street, U.S.A. at Walt Disney World.  And watching her meet Mary Poppins.
Having her walk into my room on my nineteenth birthday at 1:50a.m., the time of my birth, with a champagne bottle in hand.
Watching her do random acts of kindness for friends and strangers alike.
Waking up to an Easter egg hunt. Still.
Drinking mulled wine.
Seeing her light up as we lit lanterns, made a wish and watched them float high up into the sky.
Laughing – always laughing.

My mom is strong, hilarious, selfless, trustworthy and caring. I get to see sides of her that nobody else does and I consider it a tremendous privilege. On several occasions, I’ve filled our home with post it notes stating things that make her an amazing person, a wonderful friend and an incredible mother. No words ever seem like enough. She makes life magical.

Years ago, mom jokingly asked me just how much I love her. I told her it was simple, really… I love her more than

anyone,

anywhere,

ever.

It’s an honour to say… Happy Mother’s Day, mom!

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In honour of Mother’s Day, we’ve put together a list of celeb mothers and daughters who’ve been touched by breast cancer, and continue to remind us how important it is to have a shoulder to lean on.

Karlie Kloss

American Model, Karlie Kloss, refers to her mom as a “superhero” when thinking about the struggle her mom went through. Here’s to all the SUPERHERO moms in our lives!


Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Stella McCartney

Fashion designer, and daughter of former Beatles member, Paul McCartney, Stella understands how devastating Breast Cancer can be, after witnessing her mom go through treatment. As part of her Winter 2017 clothing line, she launched a collection of lingerie, the proceeds of which support breast cancer Awareness.


Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Alicia Keys

Keys, whose mother is also a breast cancer survivor, is focused on reducing breast cancer-related fatalities in African American women. With these mortality rates being much higher than those of other ethnicities, Alicia hopes to break down the socio-economic barriers associated with early detection and treatment.


Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Kathy Bates

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, both Kathy Bates, and her mother Bertye underwent double mastectomy surgery. Kathy’s courage, and choice to speak out about opting out of reconstruction has been an inspiration to many.


Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Christina Applegate

Christina Applegate, and her mother, Nancy Priddy share more in common than their acting careers. Both Applegate and Priddy are breast cancer survivors who underwent double mastectomies. Applegate attributes her successful recovery to her mother’s overwhelming support.


Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!

 

Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!Here’s to all the incredibly strong mothers and daughters out there! Rethink Breast Cancer would like to take this opportunity to wish you, and all the moms in your life, a very happy Mother’s Day!SaveSaveSaveSave

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