The Mental & Emotional Toll of Breast Cancer

What happened when I thought I was on the road to healing past trauma, loneliness and unhealthy behaviors to becoming a better version of myself? In my mind, I was screaming, “YAY! I’ve finally gotten the healing I need and deserve.” It took a lot of work to heal these parts of myself, and I was truly starting to feel accomplished. It was a rebirth. That was until that one annual exam gave me a diagnosis that completely changed my life as I knew it. To top it off, it was during the first year of the pandemic, making matters worse than they already were. How could this be? I’ve always stayed on top of my yearly exams. I had no health issues, striving to be healthy both physically and mentally. A month after turning 40, my life started moving faster than I anticipated as my body was now knowingly ill. Is this what 40 looks like? No one told me this. They all said, “Life actually begins at 40,” but can I give it back? I thought, I don’t want it if I have to go into it fighting. 

From the moment of diagnosis, I never gave myself the opportunity to mentally process what my body was going through in the physical to rid this disease that tried to kill me. My past had taught me to keep smiling while moving physically and to not get stuck in the emotions — also known as survival. 

With my appointments, scans and surgeries scheduled, I showed up physically, but I wasn’t always present mentally, and quite frankly it wasn’t “needed.” They only needed my physical body to begin treatment for my healing. The pandemic added more pain to my body (my nostrils), getting test after test to determine if I was clear to proceed with surgery. To stay afloat, I had to mentally disconnect. I didn’t want my feelings or emotions to get in the way of what I knew had to take place in the physical to become healthy again. While going through chemo and radiation treatments, outsiders praised me for being strong, even calling me “superwoman,” not realizing superwoman was exhausted and no longer wanted to wear her cape. 

Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to my body, as long as it was clean and healthy, but over the past year since being diagnosed, I found myself closely monitoring every little thing … Why does this look like this? When will I get back to normal? But what is normal after a cancer diagnosis? I then began comparing my progress to what I could see from other survivors. But I had to remind myself in those moments that comparison has never been a part of my thought-process, and I’m not going to allow it to become so, because my journey and healing is my very own. I suppose this became my reality because the day I was diagnosed, my “normal” was taken away from me. I was left to figure out for myself what works best for me and my life as a survivor. 

Finally, it wasn’t until my reconstructive DIEP flap surgery recovery that I realized I was emotionally deprived and mentally exhausted. Superwoman was officially drained. I was tired of doctor appointments, copays, chest tightness, sleepless nights, on top of feeling and seeing the physical changes my body was enduring due to treatments and surgeries. Lying in bed, recovering, it was the first time I allowed myself to feel my emotions. I was so sad, I began to regret my selected choice of reconstruction because it put me in a place where I needed to depend on others to help me in my personal space. From day one of being diagnosed, this played over and over in my head: “Who’s going to help me?” It’s a natural thought when you’re used to living life alone. It is hard for people to see struggle I went through with this diagnosis, when being strong is all I’ve ever known and I’ve made things look easy from the outside in. 

As a woman of faith… I had to rely on it, knowing the right people will come at the right time, and my strength doesn’t only reside in my physical, but starts with my mindset. This is what motivated me to heal my mindset and mental health. The body has limitations, but the mind doesn’t. We focus so much on what goes on from the neck down that we forget it all starts mentally. If you’re not mentally ready, you’re never physically prepared and that’s where the preparation starts. Most of my journey so far has been post-traumatic sadness, because I didn’t see or feel the intensity of the surgeries or treatments during the moments, most like my life itself. The aftermath of cancer is unpleasant and can be troubling if you don’t allow yourself grace, self-care, and self-love. 

Although I keep a smile on my face, there are the days of loneliness and uncertainty that no one would know I deal with, as I’ve learned people only know what you post, share or tell, which is why I’m choosing to share this now. In regards to healing my past of trauma and loneliness before my diagnosis, I’m still committed to staying healthy emotionally, mentally, and physically fit as possible by retiring my cape of being superwoman to superhuman. Today I accept what was and embrace the direction my life is going in by being transparent, vulnerable and accepting that being strong doesn’t require you to suppress your feelings or pretend everything is okay. The emotional rollercoaster cancer puts you on is much harder to deal with than treatment and learning to accept or love a post-diagnosis body is a process. Some days I’m a warrior, some days I’m a broken mess, most days I’m a bit of both, but every day I’m here standing, fighting or trying… To me, this is superhuman. — Syreeta

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