You have breast cancer. What now?

by Karen on March 16, 2015

©Karen Gooding 2015

©Karen Gooding 2015

It’s the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing on your mind before you fall asleep. You have cancer.

Your brain is spinning, your gut is churning, and you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Yet you’re expected to absorb information and make decisions and plan and, oh yeah, do all of the gazillion things we women do on any given normal day.

I remember my breast cancer diagnosis, 19 years ago, as if it were moments ago. I remember the room and exactly where we were sitting – my doctor, my husband and me. I remember a few of the words: malignant, tumor, early, surgery. But mostly I remember a fear so tangible I could feel it move from my gut to my chest to my jaws to my fingers.

Thinking back to that December day, I’ve tried to recall a few of the things I’ve learned since. No two journeys are the same, but here are a few things that worked for me:

It’s OK to cry. You’re not weak. It’s OK to laugh. You’re not frivolous. It’s OK to tremble. You’re not cowardly. It’s OK to yell and scream and curse and stomp or to be very, very quiet. You’re not bad-tempered, and you’re not repressed. Whatever your reaction – on any given day or in any given moment – is OK. It’s normal and it’s valid, because it’s yours.

Take time to breathe. When you learn you have breast cancer, you’ll be bombarded with information. You’ll be faced with all sorts of choices. You don’t have to decide anything this instant. Take time to consider your options.

Don’t dwell on statistics (Part One). My breast cancer was caught early, and my predicted five-year survival rate was 85%. Good news, right? It should have been. But, too often, I found myself dwelling on that other 15%. Not to mention that sneaky little modifier, “five-year.” Five years? My kids were 5 and 2, for heaven’s sake; five years seemed just a blink away. It was just a blink away, but I’ve been breast cancer-free for 19 years now.

Don’t dwell on statistics (Part Two). Unlike my breast cancer, I did not discover my ovarian cancer early. And at the time, I was way too scared to check survival rates. I’m glad I didn’t, since I later learned my predicted five-year survival rate was 39%. Well, I’m already seven years out. So, I’ve beaten those odds. Pretty soundly.

Phone a friend. If someone you know – and trust – has battled breast cancer, call her. Compare notes, but don’t compare your situations. No two diagnoses are exactly alike.

Take a friend. And, take notes. When you have cancer, doctors’ appointments are overwhelming. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how much a particular question has been on my mind, I will forget it the moment I walk through the examining room door. And no matter how closely I listen, I will forget half of what the doctor says. So, write down questions ahead of time, and keep them in your hand, not your purse. Take notes. Better yet, invite someone you trust to go with you.

Make the choice that’s best for you. Your doctor may have a definitive strategy or present you with several options. Either way, feel free – even encouraged – to seek a second opinion. Likewise, your friends, your family and other breast cancer survivors will undoubtedly offer advice, whether you ask for it or not. Thank them, tuck away the good, sift out the bad, and then make your own decisions.

Accept help. Learn to say yes. Learn to say no. Gather your strength, and fight. You’ve got this.


{ 2 comments }

Sallie Corrigan Amos March 17, 2015 at 8:19 am

Karen,

You have a gift in your words. Thanks for giving strength and permission thru your blog to so many facing this battle.

Love to you!
Sallie

Sonja April 6, 2015 at 12:08 pm

thank you for writing this down for all to see! Great advice, and I’m only one week post op!

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