Time heals all wounds. This statement needs a few major caveats.
Yes, time does heal physical wounds. If you are lucky enough to have a highly functioning immune and lymph system. If you have access to proper and affordable health care. If you can stave off infections.
Even with all of the above, healing physical wounds is the easy part. It is the wounds that lie within the mind and the stored memory that time simply cannot contend with.
I have had cancer. Twice. I was first diagnosed with stage IIa breast cancer when I was 35. After multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and a 10-year-long hormone-blocking medication prescription, I was sent on my merry way. I had been declared ‘no evidence of disease’ or NED. The terms ‘cancer-free’ or ‘in remission’ are no longer used as cancer is considered a chronic disease even when you have ostensibly beat it.
Five years later, despite choosing the most drastic treatment plan – including a bilateral mastectomy the first time – my cancer came back. A lump was found on top of my mastectomy by my oncologist at a regular 6-month check-up. The second time was worse in every way. More surgeries, stronger chemo, the longest course of radiation available. Worse than all of this, is the trauma of knowing that what you thought was squarely in the rearview, can and did come back.
There is solace as a cancer patient in being told where to go, what exactly to do, and how to manage your life on a day-to-day basis. And then one day you are told that you are done and to come back in 3 months. Done? What does that even mean, done? You have just walked (or crawled) through fire and now there is no one to tell you what to do. When you are going through treatment, you don’t have time or the mental bandwidth to think about what is happening to you. You just put your head down and barrel through.
You find yourself floating free in a world you no longer know how to navigate in a body you do not recognize. All of the people who have been bringing you meals, and offering to help with your children, and your errands…they all go away. You are on your own. What. Now?
This is where the mental crush catches you by surprise. All the anxiety and depression you didn’t have the physical capability to deal with during treatment bubbles to the surface and you find yourself drowning.
What makes this time even harder to manage is that "non-cancery" folk expect you to be thrilled that you are done. "You've finished treatment! You must be so happy!" Happy? You are a shell of who you once were. You are some combination of bald, burned, poisoned, stuffed with steroids, and physically weak, and now you are dealing with the unbearable weight of knowing that you have had a real glimpse at your mortality.
While you stand shell-shocked, the world keeps spinning. You are expected to climb back on the wheel and function like the rest of society. But how?
In most cases that I have seen (and I have seen many as a cancer advocate, writer, and public speaker), patients are not given any tools with which to manage the mental and emotional toll that the disease has left in its wake. Your doctors don’t have time for you anymore because their job is to medically treat disease and they have accomplished that. Your community has moved on to the next worthy cause and you are left with limited to no resources with which to manage the aftermath.
No one talks about “The After.” We are congratulated for not dying and expected to move right along. If you have it in you, you dig for resources. Perhaps you search the internet for a local support group, you find your like-kind by using social media hashtags. There are plenty of resources out there, but the problem is that you have to do the work to access them.
I have found that most "cancery" people don’t have the energy or time to do this work so they shove themselves back into their old life like a round peg in a square hole. The trauma that has been endured is crammed back inside the self where it percolates like lava under the surface.
I am here to unveil the ugly truth. Your friend, family member, colleague – they are all dragging a boulder of anguish with them everywhere they go. Our diseases may recede into the invisible recesses of our bodies or bloodstreams, but what remains front and center is the emotional pain of having lived through it.
I am the poster child for someone who seems like they have it all under control and have moved on. I go to work with a smile, I chat animatedly with friends at my children’s sporting events. But I am also a woman who has walked herself to an emergency room 4 miles away from her house in the dead of night while weeping. I have every resource as an educated, well-connected woman in the cancer world, but I still suffer. All the time.
I encourage you to check on your loved ones who have had this disease. Ask them how they really are. Be ready with resources. Let them know that you understand that they are carrying an invisible load. Allow them to feel their emotions in a non-judgemental, safe, and comforting space.
If you or your loved one are facing challenges following a breast cancer diagnosis, here are some valuable resources for individuals affected by breast cancer:
- Metavivor: Metavivor is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funding for metastatic breast cancer research. They focus on supporting individuals living with metastatic breast cancer and advocating for more research to improve treatment options and ultimately find a cure for this advanced stage of breast cancer.
- Young Survival Coalition: The Young Survival Coalition (YSC) is a nonprofit organization that provides support, resources, and advocacy for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. They aim to address the unique issues and challenges faced by young women with breast cancer and empower them to thrive through education and community support.
- The Breasties The Breasties is a community and support network for young women affected by breast and reproductive cancers. They organize events, retreats, and online forums to foster connections, provide emotional support, and create a sense of belonging among individuals facing these health challenges.
- Imerman Angels: Imerman Angels is a nonprofit organization that offers one-on-one support and mentorship to individuals facing cancer. They match cancer fighters, survivors, and caregivers with "Mentor Angels" who have gone through similar experiences, providing personalized emotional support and guidance.
- Lemons of Love: Lemons of Love is a charity that creates and distributes care packages called "Chemo Care Bags" to individuals undergoing chemotherapy treatment. These care packages contain items to provide comfort and support during the challenging journey of cancer treatment, aiming to bring a little bit of joy and relief to patients and their families.
Breast Cancer Change Champion Grace Lombardo