A couple of weeks ago, I found out that a colleague at work was diagnosed with breast cancer. It's always sad when you get news like this. It hits home a little more when it's someone you know.
She's young and in the prime of her life. And right now she's probably feeling like she is living a dream. That it's all a big mistake, and when she wakes up she will breathe a sigh of relief and chuckle at how real her emotions were.
I won't pretend it's easy. For those of us who have been there, the day we found out we had breast cancer was one of the toughest days we have had to face. It's the game changer. In the big game of life, it's as if all of our pieces have just toppled to the floor and the board wiped clean.
I remember the car ride home from my oncologist's office that day. My head felt twice as big with all the new information I had just received, tests that were required and phone numbers to schedule surgery, all stuffed in there like a sock drawer with too many socks. I cried, I got angry, and I still believed it was all a bad dream.
But to all those newly diagnosed sisters and brothers out there, take heart. It will not always be this way. Things will become more manageable after the first visit with your oncologist. It doesn't matter whether the news you get from your newly appointed doctor is encouraging or not. The important thing is to get the information you need to make decisions in order to take charge again. This is your body, and you need to make the best decisions that you can for its well-being.
Making a plan of action is very important at this time. Information may come at you quickly and from many directions. Surgery may be scheduled relatively fast, and subsequent decisions made just as quickly.
But to my dear colleague who is out there not knowing which way is up, here's what worked for me, and what I would have loved to know back then, but didn't.
When possible, always bring a close friend or loved one to doctor's appointments. You never know what test results will be given to you, or what treatment options they will discuss. Having someone there taking good notes will remove some of the stress you may be feeling, and will be helpful later on.
Bring a list of questions for your doctor that you have prepared ahead of time. Believe me, you will need the reminder. By the time you get to the hospital or doctor's office, find parking, and perhaps wait for an hour or more before you're seen, not to mention the fact that your overwhelmed just by the fact that you're sitting in a waiting room full of oncology patients (I'm not supposed to be here), you will remember very little of what you wanted to ask if it's not written down. Whether it's for a technician administering a test, or for the oncologist interpreting the results, no question is a stupid question.
I read a lot about the type of cancer that I had. There a wealth of information on the Internet, and there are many people, like me, who blog about their experience with the disease. Many of the blogs are actually written by cancer survivors and have helpful advice about the little things that nobody else will talk to you about.
As I was waiting for my operation for the double mastectomy and reconstruction, I planned for time off of work for recovery (six weeks in my case), as well as the care for my daughters, who were 13, 11 and seven years old at the time. My parents came from out of town for two months to live with me, and I can say that, as independent as I like to think I am, it would have been hard for me to do it without them. During this time, I had to go back and forth regularly to the doctor. As I was unable to drive, my parents accompanied me there as well.
When I was diagnosed with eight rounds of chemotherapy, I had my good friend and hairdresser shave my hair off. I felt slightly nauseous, similar to being in my first trimester of pregnancy. I would walk around with a bag of granola, so I was constantly chewing and getting rid of that steel taste that can come with chemotherapy. It also settled my stomach. I brought a different friend or family member to each of my sessions. It allowed us to catch up, provided much needed humour, and made the time pass faster.
Many of the decisions I made through the array of surgeries and treatments I had were suited to me, as an individual. Some patients need to stay home. I chose to stay at work. It's an individual choice, and I can only advise to do what's right for you.
The best thing I did throughout my experience was run. Apart form my recovery from surgery, I continued to run on a regular basis. I'm convinced that I made it through recovery and chemotherapy so well because of this.
And what would I have liked to know? I can summarize in two words: yoga and meditation. I have been meditating for several months now, and I can't tell you how beneficial this would have been to me earlier on. If possible, I would advise starting it sooner rather than later. The same goes with yoga, if you find it beneficial. Although I have to profess that I am far from a "regular" at this, I think the benefits you will receive for your body and mind are well worth the effort.
Finally, and most importantly, laugh, be grateful for each day, and believe. Rent a funny movie, read a funny book or talk to a friend that always makes you laugh. Give thanks for the small victories and people in your life on a daily basis.
Life after cancer will never be the same. But there may be some very pleasant surprises on the other side. For many of us, it's even better.