Adventure Girl learns a lesson in life after breast cancer
‘You are a strong person. Just because you are feeling these things now doesn’t mean you aren’t strong underneath. You are reacting to things that have happened to you, and that’s perfectly natural.’
Receiving a cancer diagnosis has changed me in ways I didn’t expect. Denial, fear, sadness, anger, relief, seemed natural. But it’s been a few months since finishing radiation therapy, and I just can’t seem to get back on track.
This time last year I felt I was finishing a journey, working hard to move forward from a past where my poor self-esteem had drawn me into an abusive relationship, to a period of growth where I felt certain I would never look back. I saw myself as strong, confident, capable, happy. My relationship attachment style (once insecure) was secure, and my self-awareness and ability to manage my weaknesses meant I was taking great leaps forward, commencing an open relationship from a position of strength. I no longer sought validation and I was comfortable living independently while also sharing part of my life and myself with my primary partner.
Then I discovered I had early breast cancer. Before I had time to process what this might mean, I was in hospital having the lump removed. Infection set in and I healed slowly. My breast swelled and my armpit collected fluid where it could no longer drain through damaged lymph nodes until I couldn’t rest on one side. I had no idea how much my breasts moved just getting around until they had been sliced and bruised, no appreciation of how much I relied upon full mobility until I was immobile. By the time my wounds had healed, I had developed ‘cording’: crystalised lymph that restricted my movement and left me feeling as though my ribs were cracked.
Then there was radiation every day for 5 weeks, followed by physiotherapy and not knowing what the hell was happening to my body. My breast swelled still more and my skin blistered and burned. It wasn’t like the sunburn they described, it was like a cooking burn, right across my left side. I was left unable to move properly, even once the radiation site healed, because the fluid and cording left me misaligned.
I had no idea that after everything had died down, once my body had (mostly) healed, and my life returned to normal, that nothing would feel normal again.
I expected to feel relief, ready to make the changes to my life I had been forced to put on hold. Instead I felt useless, irritated, powerless and guilty. Worse, I felt weak, vulnerable, needy and insecure. It was as though all the work that I had done on my self-esteem, building a tower above a solid foundation, had been undermined. My logical brain was aware of how it should and could feel, but my emotional mind could only manage to curl up on my boyfriend’s couch and weep for days.
It didn’t stop there. While I was able to get back up off the couch and go into work, something had altered fundamentally. I experienced patches of happiness, allowed myself to relax and enjoy individual moments, but they seemed more like temporary distractions. My brain knew there was work to be done and demanded my mind get on and do it.
Usually my mind is fairly full. I get lost in my own thoughts and enjoy my own company. After my treatment it was silent. I was bored. Bored with everything, but most especially, with me. I don’t ever recall feeling that way. My inner world is usually crammed with ideas and insights. Now it was empty, with nothing to offer anyone else, and nothing to offer me. I was hollow.
Then it filled up and thoughts were flying too fast, cluttered, and I found everything irritating. I struggled to settle into any one thought, any single task. I had to get so much done, but nothing would stay still. Tasks seemed too big, overwhelming, competing for my attention. From utter silence, I began to suffocate from thinking too much, feeling too much, none of it filtering through into any kind of order.
My thoughts began to turn in on themselves. I had survived, I should be happy, healthy, grateful to be alive. I had no right to feel sorry for myself. Why wasn’t I over it already?
Worse, I was aware that this was not how it had to be. I was keen to get back to the old me, but I felt there was always one or more hurdles in the way. And whenever I tried to start something, I found myself giving up. Either it shouldn’t be a priority, or it simply wasn’t going to be good enough.
All that work to build a solid foundation, and the cancer had blasted a tunnel straight though. In my job I felt useless; in my relationship, needy. And my body! Where had my confidence gone? Physically the scars are minimal. When my breasts are their normal size (‘Boobzilla’ continues to periodically swell), you can barely notice anything different about them. But in my mind I’ve lost my sexy. I can’t compete with younger, skinnier girls, girls with intelligence, charm, wit, or anything I can no longer see in myself.
In this state I struggle to socialise and nothing my boyfriend says can lastingly reassure me. I have begun to push him and pull away, testing, testing, and it’s my leaky boat all over again. Only now it’s worse, because I know it doesn’t have to be like this. Haven’t I grown beyond? Didn’t I process these underlying issues and prove my strength?
I hate being insecure me. It terrifies me and I struggle not to withdraw, to simply disappear. I’ve contemplated suicide, more than once. Failing that I fantasise about mutilating my flesh, digging my nails into my skin, or simply ending things with my partner so I don’t have to feel this pain any more, and so that he doesn’t have to witness me like this.
I’m conscious that this isn’t the girl he fell in love with, and each act of jealousy, each cry for reassurance, weakens me in his eyes, takes him closer to his own negative relationship experiences, and me to mine. It’s a cycle of destruction. The more weakness I show, the weaker I feel, and the weaker I feel the more prone to weakness I am.
I read in the brochures that breast cancer survivors often suffer depression, particularly if they have experienced depression before, that it can be difficult to transition back in to everyday life, that we have to find a new kind of ‘normal’.
I didn’t expect to feel this paralysing fear, this hopelessness and helplessness. I didn’t expect to feel ugly, inside and out. And I certainly didn’t think I would be stranded on an island of insecurity floating further and further away from the tower of esteem I once painstakingly built.
I only hope my friend is right when she says that I am still that strong person, that I can rebuild and reach my tower once more. This time I need to make it out of more resilient stuff. Because my future could hold anything and my health could be taken away from me at any moment, my body could betray me again. I’m 35, fit and physically strong. I have no family history of breast cancer and there is no obvious reason why my body developed a cancerous lump. I only know that it did, and it might again, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except get on with living so I don’t miss out on what life I have left.
So I tell myself I am still strong, and I will only get stronger. What happened to me was not my fault, and outside of my control, and that’s okay. I don’t need to control everything, least of all my long-suffering boyfriend who has given me nothing but love and understanding.