It’s a time in my life that’s hard to forget, but every year when October rolls around I am reminded to remember breast cancer. With each passing year, my memory of that time shifts and sloughs away like a changing shoreline. What remains clearly defined are the foundations that just happened to be fully formed in my life, the gamechangers that ensured I had the best possible outcome despite a cancer diagnosis.
I’m grateful for the now well-established mammography screening – and that I took the time to follow through on these. We are beyond fortunate to have at our finger tips free, regular medical screenings for all sorts of ailments. I can’t fathom why we would choose to skip these lifesaving procedures. With both my mom and her sister/my aunt having had breast cancer, I was flagged to receive an annual mammogram. I took that seriously, and that’s exactly how it was found. The tumours were too small to feel, but were already nesting cozily in my breast tissue with a few nasty bits sliding into my lymph nodes. If I had skipped that screening it’s possible I wouldn’t be here writing this.
I’m grateful for my husband, my advocate and bedrock of a partner who, along with a thousand other things, spoke for me when I couldn’t. Despite our extraordinary medical system and everything that comes along with it, when your world is imploding and you can’t find the words or the will to move forward, having an advocate can be as life-saving as the actual treatment. I remember vividly the first time my voice failed. My husband and I met with the surgeon for our pre-surgery chat. A friend warned me that although this surgeon was a leader in her field (she literally wrote the book on breast cancer), her bedside manner was less than stellar. I remember thinking “that’s ok, I don’t need bedside manner, I just need the tumours out please.” I should have known myself better. I should have been better prepared. You see, losing my breast terrified me. Scientifically speaking, this makes no sense. It’s not like losing a foot or a lung. It’s just flesh really, isn’t it? However, for me – my breasts are tied to my sense of womanhood, motherhood (being a mother and having a mother), my sexuality, my identity. As a child when I fell down or something went sideways and my world shattered, my mother would scoop me up in her arms, I would lay my head against the warmth and softness of her “front porch” and somehow the world was made right again. So that day, in that tiny office when the surgeon bluntly asked “What shall it be? Lumpectomy or mastectomy?” I lost my voice. Thankfully, my husband piped up and spoke for the team, that we were all for saving the breast if it was medically feasible and medically recommended (which in the end it was – hurray). This was one of many times throughout the treatment when my husband spoke when I could not. I am forever grateful for that.
I am grateful for my physical fitness going into treatment, (conveniently health and wellness is what I do for a living) and the yoga teacher training that I serendipitously completed the year before I was diagnosed. Although I didn’t feel it at the time, I was better prepared to weather the medical maelstrom of prolonged treatment with a strong body, a relatively robust immune system and a solid yoga practice (in particular the physical asanas and the breathing practices of pranayama). My established wellness habits had me scratching out some sort of body movement in whatever way I could tolerate depending on the day. Mostly I walked. When the body was unwilling and I yearned for some relief from the discomfort, I could always find my “way home” with various breathing practices. In fact, the breathing practices proved to be my most consistent, powerful tool.
I am grateful for all the family, friendships and community in my life that together created bridges between the good, the bad and the ugly patches, stepping stones across rivers I thought I could not ford. And all the actions that came with the relationships - the meals, the flowers, the walks, the cards, the phone calls - formed a gentle wave that lifted and floated me along to the finish line.
I’m grateful for my penchant for goal setting and planning fun things to look forward to so the work at hand is more tolerable. It’s the old chestnut of delayed gratification – get the job done and then you get a treat. As children, our mother drove this home to us in spades, something I found infernally annoying as a child – why can’t I have the treat now and then do my chores? Alas, this life lesson has proven to be gold, and I’m grateful to Mom’s perseverance in driving it home. Who knew that Mom was preparing me for the ultimate chore of enduring cancer treatment. My husband would gently remind me of our future planned treats together. Like how, once my chemo was finished, we would head to the calm, warm waters of Desolation Sound, and how the sun would warm my shoulders as I dangled my toes in the crystal-clear water of Pendrell Sound. Even though it was still months away, I went there in my mind and it helped me feel better. We planned a trip to Hawaii after radiation – the final stage of treatment. It was another amazing mental goal post to work toward and dream about. Practising this delayed gratification process was a crash course on how powerful indeed our minds can be when we make the choice to change our minds.
Looking back, I realize none of these gamechangers are breast cancer specific. Having an eye on one’s overall health, nurturing relationships, building goals and dreams to keep the future fertile – all these strategies translate to helping one navigate life’s hurdles whether medical or otherwise. It just happened that all these foundations were in place for me, that I was in the right place at the right time in my life to handle cancer knocking at my door.