Breast cancer affects one in eight women in the United States who live to be 80 years old. The mortality rate is nearly nineteen percent. If you are a woman over the age of 40, I urge you to have your mammograms. Thirteen years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and if it was not for mammograms, I might not be alive today. My type of cancer was called DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ), which means that it was primarily confined to the milk ducts. If diagnosed early enough, women with this form of breast cancer have an excellent prognosis, and hopefully you will be as lucky as me and not have your lymph nodes involved. DCIS is only picked up through mammograms because there are no palpable tumors.
While I am doing fine and free from breast cancer, I must say that the experience changed my life forever. I never thought I would become a breast cancer statistic. After all, there was no cancer of any kind in my family, but at the age of 47 while raising three wonderful children and having just celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary, my annual mammogram was labeled, "abnormal."
I was given the choice to have a radical excision of the affected area, which would leave my breast extremely deformed, coupled with the need for radiation, or to have a mastectomy and reconstruction. After doing my research and speaking with other women, I opted for a mastectomy and reconstruction. The surgery and immediate recovery were successful, but because they removed the latissmus dorsi muscle from my back to reconstruct my new breast, I have encountered numerous neuromuscular issues and weakness on the right side of my body -- a constant reminder of my past.
Another reminder is the degree of deformity and feeling uncomfortable about my sexuality. It has helped to have a supportive husband and family who realize that I am the same person I was before surgery, just laden with more scars. I remember feeling unattractive after my surgery, but my surgeon and my husband were encouraging and repeatedly told me I was beautiful and to wear provocative clothes whenever possible -- first around the house and then out in public. I began to make it a habit. Now as a sextogenarian, I care less about what people think. I want to feel good about myself and what matters most is how you feel on the inside.
Another difficult part of having had breast surgery is the complete loss of physical sensation on the mastectomy side. You are left with no erotic sensation at all. The nipple and surrounding area become numb. According to my plastic surgeon, over time, some women do get sensation back, but this never happened to me. I have learned to accommodate these changes, and embrace the fact that I am alive. I also realized that growing older means having the ability to adapt to both physical and psychological changes.
In order to maintain a sense of emotional sanity during the early post-operative days, I focused my attention toward inner healing, and practiced Creative Visualization. Each night, I listened to a healing audio program. I learned to take one day at a time and to live in the moment. Positive thinking and meditation were also important. I also journaled a lot, and published a self-help memoir called, Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey.
Five years after my initial breast cancer diagnosis, I was hit with a second type of cancer -- multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer). The doctors say it was unrelated to breast cancer but how can anyone be sure? Intuitively, I think it is the universe's way of giving me more to write about. This type of cancer, unfortunately, is incurable, but more and more research is being done for various types of treatments. Luckily, now eight years after my diagnosis, I have not yet needed treatment and there is a chance I never will. A lot has to do with me taking care of my physical and psychological needs.
As a writer and transpersonal psychologist, I advocate writing and journaling as a transpersonal practice because the act of writing brings us in touch with our inner voice and paves a path for emotional healing. I have been keeping a notebook since the age of ten. It is a place to share my sentiments, passions, thoughts, fears and whatever else crosses my mind.
Many women have used journals to record their breast cancer experiences, either to share with their families or to refer back to at a later date. Some of these journals or books that have been published, include those by Audre Lorde, May Sarton, Betty Rollin, Rose Kushner, Hilda Raz, and Elizabeth Berg, to name a few.
Even though my breast cancer incisions healed and I returned to my routines, the emotional and physical scars of having had breast cancer remain forever. When filling out medical forms you are asked about a history of cancer, and are again reminded of your past. When going for a massage, there is a need to explain scars in unusual places. When my kids ask if there's any family history of cancer, I need to make them aware of their own risks, such as the importance of having children sooner, rather than later. When a friend or relative faces similar demons, I might be called upon to be supportive and painful memories are revisited.
I have learned and inform others that emotional healing usually takes longer than physical healing. It is important to surround yourself with positive individuals and those who make you feel good about yourself as much as possible. We cannot dismiss our pasts or the journeys that lead us to where we are today, but it is sometimes a good idea to reflect on how it is always possible to transform every lived experience, no matter how daunting it may seem at the time.