Cancer, perhaps more than any other disease, has a formidable reputation that precedes it. Because of this, cancer “lore” can affect your expectations of treatment effects and anticipated prognosis if you are unfortunate enough to receive a diagnosis.
There were a number of things that I didn’t realize about breast cancer that might have made my experience, if not better, at least slightly less harrowing. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:
1. Breast cancer research remains more highly funded than that any other cancer (source: 2019 Northwestern University estimate) and is therefore the best-studied type of cancer. As a result the treatment plan is solid. While this does depend somewhat on the type of breast cancer you have (Triple-Negative, Triple-Positive, Hormone Receptor-Positive, Inflammatory, etc.), the fact remains that there is great interest in “saving the boobies”.
Your treatment plan has likely been well-tested with ample positive outcomes. Combine this with the tendency for this cancer to be diagnosed at earlier stages due to the relative ease in finding a tumor (I mean, you can feel the lump even if it’s not very big), survival rates tend to be very good. Understandably, that might not be very comforting at the time that you’re hit with the news that you have breast cancer, but it is a blessing that you’ll appreciate later.
2. Getting breast cancer is not your fault. I struggled with this one for a loooong time. If you’ve read some of my earliest posts, you know that I not only had a hard time getting my head around my diagnosis, but also a lot of anger about everything I did that was considered “protective” that seemed not to make any difference.
The reality is, as much as we do know about cancer, there’s still a lot we don’t, which means you can be doing everything right — even “perfectly” — and still be diagnosed with breast cancer.
The message I got from cancer-prevention campaigns was that there was so much you could do to avoid the disease. I checked off all those boxes and thought that I was at very low risk. I was “the fit one”, the vegetarian, a dutiful breast-feeding mom allowing myself no indulgences — the last person you’d imagine this happening to, but it did.
I felt ashamed about the diagnosis, even feared that I would be accused of lying about my healthy habits. I was terrified that my healthy lifestyle had somehow backfired. While this sounds ridiculous now, feeling so out-of-control about my own health was demoralizing and depressing.
3. A healthy lifestyle goes a long way in making recovery easier. While I felt dejected about not being able to avoid breast cancer, my exercise and dietary habits helped me recover from treatment side effects faster and not gain weight afterwards. And as I learned later, by maintaining an active lifestyle, I was significantly decreasing my chances of cancer recurrence. I wrote about those findings in this post.
So all my efforts were not for naught. Word to the wise: if you don’t exercise regularly, start now. If you do exercise, keep going!
4. There is light in dark places. I must stress that cancer isn’t some “great” thing that happens to you and it carries with it big side effects and an ever-present risk of death. I lost two friends to breast cancer who were both diagnosed about the time that I was and they were far too young to die.
But given that I had to go through this, I had the option of “sink or swim” when it came to how I would view my experience. Eventually I found the light in the darkness of the cancer tunnel, but it did take a number of years and many ups-and-downs before I was able to appreciate the lessons that the disease taught me: being able to accept and live with uncertainty, identifying a clear purpose in my life, finding gratitude in small things, even coming to grips with my own mortality. These lessons were difficult but also valuable, and I admit that I wouldn’t have learned them if I had not gotten cancer.
Perhaps some of the most important of these were identifying that I had suffered from anxiety for a good part of my life and understanding how it had shaped my decisions. Yes, it took cancer for me to realize all that! This led to incorporating mindfulness and meditation into my daily routine.
And that is a very positive thing indeed.