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.
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.