I’m 32 and I have no family history of breast cancer. So when my doctor ordered a mammogram, it seemed like an unnecessary test. I was certain the lump I had felt in my breast was simply a cyst or a fibroadenoma -- two of the most common benign breast tumors. Breast cancer hadn’t even crossed my mind.
When I received my diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma, I was in disbelief, emotionally labile (that’s doctor speak for shaky), and confused. I kept asking myself:
- How did I get cancer?
- How long has it been growing in my body?
- Could it have been detected sooner if I performed regular breast self-exams?
Fixated on these questions, I drowned in devastation and denial, searching for something to blame for the fact that I had cancer. Every cause has an effect, right? But I’ll never know what caused me to get breast cancer.
It’s only natural to wonder how the hell I got to this point, but staying stalled in my past didn’t serve me in my current situation -- a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient who needed to get a port placed to start chemotherapy ASAP.
I wasn’t ready to accept this new label, so I opened my mind to explore what it felt like to have cancer. I examined the thoughts and feelings coursing through my body, noting one sensation that prevailed: fear.
Fear of the unknown, fear of pain and suffering, fear of loss, and fear of death.
I didn’t want to feel fear. (Who does?) We’re taught that fear is bad, fear feels awful, and that we should avoid fear at all costs. Yet the more I resisted it, the more it seemed to persist, and the worse I felt. So I tried something different: I allowed it. I figured, what did I have to lose now?
Allowing my fear to surface, I noted it as a heaviness in my core that radiated icy-hot spikes through my limbs and a blossoming, steamy fullness in my cheeks. Fear didn’t feel good, by any means, but by sitting in it I realized that my fear, like all of my emotions, was just a vibration in my body. Nothing more -- what a relief this was! Like that, my fear of feeling fear melted away.
I learned to recognize my fear, acknowledge it (“Hi, fear, I see you”) and sit with it until it went away. Sometimes it lasted longer than others, like in the days approaching my first chemo session, but it always passed. This is a secret every cancer patient needs to know, especially, when you’re diagnosed: Face your feelings, feel your feelings, and the feelings will fade away.
The more I practiced this process, the easier it became to experience all the emotions that arose when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, understanding myself in this way brought me clarity as to how I wanted to proceed as a young mom and doctor diagnosed with breast cancer and ultimately shaped my strength through my breast cancer journey.
No one ever expects to be diagnosed with cancer or is prepared for their own response to such news. If you've been diagnosed with cancer, I encourage you to approach your emotional experience with compassion and curiosity. Allow and acknowledge all of your emotions and move forward in your cancer journey empowered. You can’t control cancer, but you can control how you experience it.
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