The most painful experience of my life was being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in March 2020 at the age of 32. Since reaching remission, I planned to move full speed forward and never look back. But reflecting back on what I believed then -- and comparing it to what I know now -- has been entirely enlightening. It’s given me powerful insight to who I am and who I am going to be.
If I could go back to the days immediately after diagnosis, here’s what I’d tell myself:
It’s NOT My Fault
Of all of the tyrannous thoughts that flooded my mind at the time of my diagnosis, the most prevailing one was that I was to blame for my breast cancer. I couldn’t prove that it was my fault, but I also couldn’t disprove it. I was stuck in the how and why, searching for something to blame, and I couldn’t find anything to blame other than myself. After all, the cancer was growing inside of my body. I felt betrayed by myself. How could my body do this to me? I avoided mirrors and stopped taking selfies. I literally could not stand to look at myself. I felt trapped -- stuck in a stranger’s sick body.
When it came time to start chemo and my body started to feel the side effects, I felt the dissonance of betrayal by my body and also relying on it to live. I acknowledged that I couldn’t fight myself at the same time my body was fighting cancer. Through every prod and palpation, each puncture and slice, my body showed up to the fight, and it was up to me to nourish and support my body in its efforts.
My body was fighting for me and I became willing to show up for it, too. Really, we were fighting the same fight. We’d be stronger together. And in this way, through each test and treatment, each medication and modification, I fell in love with myself and understood that my breast cancer was not my fault.
I Am in Control of My Journey
From the moment I was diagnosed, the cancer robbed me of my sense of control. Everything in my life centered around my cancer. Because of breast cancer, I left work. Because of breast cancer, I underwent multiple imaging and blood tests. Because of breast cancer, I got my chemo port and started chemo. Because of breast cancer, I lost my hair. Breast cancer flipped my life upside down, stomped on it, and then lit it on fire.
Although it didn’t seem like it then, I always had choices. For instance, I chose my physician, my last day at work, the days my surgeries were scheduled, when I was starting chemo, and my pain management regimen. These choices may seem inconsequential, but they were monumental in being able to guide my journey.
No one ever forced me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. Recommendations were made, and “no” was always an option. I never chose to have breast cancer, but since it was my cancer and my body, my journey was always shaped by my choice. Not the undisciplined cancer cells in my right breast, not my providers, or even the chemotherapy medicine coursing through my veins controlled me. I was always in control.
I Am Stronger Than I Know
“I have nothing left to give” was my exact thought while grappling with what the upcoming weeks and months would be like after being diagnosed with breast cancer. I had just recently started my dream career as an emergency room physician, and after having worked so hard for so long to accomplish my highest hopes and dreams, I was emotionally exhausted and professionally burnt out. I needed a break, not breast cancer.
It was overwhelming to think about what I was going to do beyond the present day. Suddenly, timelines and planning seemed irrelevant. How does one articulate a plan to stay alive? That’s what it came down to: I want to live, and each day that I rested my head on my pillow alive I considered to be a success.
My fortitude in facing my fears like pain and dangers related to treatment strengthened. As a realist, I didn’t sugarcoat it for myself. “This is going to be the hardest thing you’ve done, and if you want to live, this is what you will do.” It’s true, general anesthesia could kill me, but it is unlikely to, and if I didn’t undergo the anesthesia to get surgery, my breast cancer certainly would kill me.
The decision to live made my steps through my treatment clear. Many consider this courageous or brave, but I think I did what anyone with a motivation to live would when faced with the possibility of death: Make it through, one day at a time. You truly do not know your own strength until it's tested, and even then you may not recognize it.
If I could go back to the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I would hug myself dearly. I have compassion for her for moving forward when she didn’t think she knew how to, and I commend her for facing this unwelcome war. Without her, I wouldn’t be me now.
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