I tell my cancer story a lot. I tell it here at WWGN and to groups of medical professionals as a patient educator with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project. Last Thursday I told it to the world in an hour-long live GE Healthcare Breast Cancer Mosaic webinar.
It’s an emotional story, of course, as anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer knows. After four years and many retellings the details have gotten a bit easier to recount – except in one area. My husband. My children. My family. When I get to their part in my cancer story, the same tidal wave of emotion that hit me then hits me again. And all I can do is accept and dive into the wave.
It’s hard to explain, but anyone who loves doesn’t need an explanation. My 19-year old daughter was a newborn when I held her in my arms and first felt it. An overwhelming surge of protectiveness washed over me. In an instant I claimed my primal she-bear fierceness and it imprinted on my psyche forever.
Fifteen years later, the phone rang and I learned my mammogram was suspicious. Because I was alone when the call came, I thought it made sense to sneak back to the breast center for more pictures without telling my husband. What possessed me to put protecting him from worry above having him with me? When I came home and had to tell him the truth (and that I now needed a stereotactic biopsy) I felt the guilt of causing him pain.
Four and a half months later, I had a surgical biopsy and returned to the breast surgeon’s office to hear my diagnosis. I was alone again. When I think back on it now, I realize with some shock that my husband wasn’t there because I kept him away (he had gone to every appointment and test since I leveled with him.) Again, I prioritized protecting him above letting him be there for me at a critical moment.
Through the entire diagnostic phase, we didn’t tell our 15-year old daughter and 12-year old son anything. We felt it was better to wait until I had a diagnosis and treatment plan. When we finally sat them down, I was glad I could tell them I wasn’t going to die and would be back to normal after my mastectomy (shows what I didn’t know back then.) I remember being shocked at their response, which wasn’t good. When I look back now, I realize I had focused so intently on protecting them from bad news that I had deluded myself into thinking I had been successful.
After my mastectomy, I felt extremely isolated. As hard as it was to share bad news about my health, it was even harder to share the emotional aftermath of my diagnosis. My she-bear wanted to be better, happier and move on for the sake of my family, which caused the rest of me to resent my loneliness.
Now, when I speak with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project I talk about my children and husband knowing I will tear up because their pain still makes me very emotional. I push on because doctors and nurses need to know how significantly a patient’s role as a wife and mother affects her cancer experience.
This is the unspoken burden of women with cancer. We are inseparable from our roles as caregiver, nurturer, confidant and emotional touchstone. We take care of others before we take care of ourselves. Our she-bear instinct is primal and viciously strong and it will over-protect what we care about most in the world – our partners, our children, our parents, our families and our friends.
We can’t help it because our overwhelming drive to protect our loved ones, even to the detriment of ourselves, is a force of nature. We’re never going to stop feeling and acting on it, but we must come to grips with reality. Even a she-bear needs to take care of herself so she can continue taking care of others.
This is what I learned the hard way and what I now share with you. In addition to your family and friends, build a support network that is there just for you. No one should do cancer alone – and by that I mean without other people who “get it” and are there to support you without needing you to care for them. Laying down your she-bear once in a while is necessary to healing. And then, when you’re a bit stronger, you can get back to being Mama Grizzly.
Survival > Existence,