February 15, 2012

An Anniversary (Life After Breast Cancer)

One year ago today, I underwent the final surgery to reconstruct my breasts after a bilateral ("double") mastectomy. One year ago today.

Living with artificial body parts has required some adjustment, but... ...in the 18 months before my cancer was found, I had eleven biopsies, some of which were pretty darned uncomfortable and frightening. Nobody has been after me for "tests" since August of 2010 - and I call this a good "trade". I'll take these implants, over the pain and anxiety I was living with, any day.

I'm marking this anniversary and noting a few things about how this has all affected me.

To start with, I have some trouble thinking of myself as a "cancer survivor" - even though I am one. I can relate to the term "Mastectomy Survivor", but cancer? It doesn't seem completely real, somehow. Perhaps that's because I didn't have to undergo any treatments beyond the surgery. They caught my cancer so early that chemo and radiation were deemed unnecessary after the mastectomy. As my beloved cousin Beth (who did undergo chemo with her breast cancer) observed - I lost my breasts but got to keep my hair. If I'd had to deal with additional treatment after the mastectomy, maybe the cancer would seem more real. Or perhaps my feeling about it isn't all that unusual - I do remember Toni (Beth's mom - who also has survived breast cancer) expressing the thought "why are they doing all this to me when I don't even feel SICK?!?!?!"

In many respects, I feel more energetic, more in control of my life. I'm also finding myself doing things I've never done before - such as writing and self-publishing my book, appearing on a radio program to promote the book (I've certainly never done anything like THAT before!), and pushing myself a little harder to confront some fears I've harboured which hold me back. Facing down those demons - and even admitting they exist - is drawing my focus now, and I often think about a provocative challenge I once heard:

"What dream might you attempt today if you could be 100% sure of success?"

I love that question because often the dream to pursue isn't as far from our grasp as we think it is. Often it's just silly, irrational fears that hold us back - fears which dissolve the moment we look at them in the clear light of day.

One of my favorite books is "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" by Dr. Susan Jeffers. In her book, Jeffers offers the notion that running away from what we fear isn't really a good anxiety-management technique. She proposes that nobody gets a fear-free life; we all are going to be afraid of some things. But what we can accomplish is living boldly enough so that the things that scare us are things like, say, "climbing Mount Everest" and not "driving to the post office." Fears we don't face down can develop the power to cause our world to contract. If we fail to push outward against our fears, the world of the "scary" will push us inward. I look around me and can see many examples of how this is true. I'll bet you can, too.

And so today I am celebrating. A little of that is "where I've been", but mostly I'm celebrating "where I'm going".

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