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The 4 Stages Of Breast Cancer Recovery

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By Kelly Corrigan

Seven years ago, Kelly Corrigan called a truce with cancer—only to discover that, in important ways, she was still in the trenches.

Shortly before I turned 37 and my older daughter turned 3, I was diagnosed with breast cancer: stage III of IV. A year later—chemo, surgery and radiation behind me—I was ready to return to my former life. Little did I know that recovery also has its stages. The main difference? On the other side of treatment, bigger numbers are better.

Stage I: Increased Surveillance

My marathoner friend was in Boston last spring when the bombs went off, and for several months afterward, whenever he lit his janky gas grill, the resulting pop made him jump. Cancer is like that. For a while, ordinary things feel dangerous. That scar tissue/headache/out-of-the-blue lower back pain could be evidence of recurrence, right? Should you call your oncology nurse? Schedule a visit to the mammography center? (Recurrence anxiety loves a doctor's appointment.) But then you start to wonder where diligence ends and paranoia begins. And after one too many panicky speed dials, you start to fear it's the latter—which is why this stage also involves pretending you're no longer living from scan to exam to blood draw. The rest of the world, especially the rest of the world who loves you, wants you to stop being shocked by sudden noises. They want you to let it be over, come back to life, even celebrate, whether you're ready or not.

Stage II: The Slip-Slide

How is your heart? Your bone density? Your recall? During active treatment, I would have traded every one of them for a clear mammogram. (For all I knew, I had.) Slowly, though, I stepped off the bottom rung of the ladder, where survival is everything, to a more demanding place, where I wanted bones that would take me the distance, not to mention my old hair and eyelashes. In other words, I began to hope for more from life than life itself. I wanted to be comfortable and attractive. And come to think of it, I wanted my Irish luck back. I realized I'd entered a new stage the day I got my first post-treatment parking ticket. "Un-be-f*cking-lievable!" I scream-whispered, my daughters trailing behind me, arguing over who had to walk the dog when we got home. "Give me a break!" Just a month earlier, my two girls had been everything and enough. If only I could see them graduate, marry, become moms themselves, that's all I could ever ask for. And then...there I was, asking for a bit more. Could I see them safely into their adulthoods, and could they not bicker and could we not get a $65 ticket for underfeeding the meter by three minutes? Could I have those things, too? This, I realized, made me no better than my girls, who begged for a dog, who loved the dog with such passion for the first, oh, 24 hours, but for whom, soon enough, the dog became not so exciting. My survival, which had once been cause for Dom Pérignon, was now not quite enough of "a break."

Stage III: Connection

There is nothing wrong with using a tennis ball to play tennis. But you can also toss one into the dryer to fluff your comforter. Likewise, you can use toothpaste to soothe a bug bite and Coke to rub out rust. It's similar with cancer: Whereas initially I had applied my experience in the obvious way—to connect to fellow breast cancer patients—I soon started swapping stories with all kinds of cancer survivors, then with friends with other diseases (Crohn's, depression, shingles), then with people whose ailments weren't even physical. A bout of breast cancer, it turns out, has uses as varied as a Q-tip—because the broad-stroke pattern of crisis is so consistent. There is shock, followed by resolve, then digging for answers, then work—so much work—until, eventually, acclimation, both physical and emotional.

Within that pattern, naturally, there are switchbacks and stalls, like the desire to dissociate from the community you've been thrust into. I almost threw up the first time I set foot inside the University of California, San Francisco's Comprehensive Care Center and joined the stream of thin, slow-moving, low-voiced, gray-skinned people. I didn't want to be one of the pitied, the struck-down. But remembering that resistance came in handy when talking with my friend Joan, who didn't want to be one of the housewives whose high-flying husbands cheated, or my friend Bill, who didn't want to be one of the financial services guys who got laid off, or my neighbor Tara, who didn't want to be one of the parents who put their kid on Ritalin. I understood completely. (There's a reason people trust people who have been tested. We know things.) Cancer is a growth hormone for empathy, and empathy makes us useful to each other in ways we were not, could not have been, before.

Stage IV: Wide-Angle Amazement

It's one thing to long for life in the operating room or infusion chair. It's another to feel, in the middle of our nothing-special, could-be-better, hanging-in-there existence, how deeply we ache to be here. In the final stage of recovery, we have a shot at achieving the most elusive and divine of emotional states: awe. This is where we privately, humbly approach the well-known facts of existence—we are tiny, we have laughably little control, it will end—and sit with the staggering truth beyond: Small and fleeting, yes, but we are here. We are here.

Kelly Corrigan is the author of The Middle Place and Lift (Voice); her new memoir, Glitter and Glue (Ballantine), is due out in February.

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