In July 2013 I was one of nearly 15,000 Australian women and men who were diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
When I discovered the time bomb that had been ticking away inside me, it was a roughly two centimeter lump located in the upper left quadrant of my left breast. It was discovered, completely by chance, on a morning that had been earmarked for getting jobs done in preparation for an imminent overseas adventure. Instead, I found myself at my GP getting a referral to a radiographer. Better to be safe than sorry. Might as well check out this mass which I had inadvertently stumbled upon as the next time I’d be focused on it may be two months away when we came back from our trip.
In that moment my entire life changed. I hate to trot out a cliche but there truly is ‘Before Breast Cancer’ and ‘After Breast Cancer. What distinguishes the before and after is experienced differently for each of the approximately 15000 people diagnosed in Australia each year. I can only speak for myself. In my case, there was life before, where things caused me pain and difficulty, joy and wonder and there is life now. Profoundly deeper pain and difficulty, joy and wonder all being experienced and endured within the context and at times confines of my treatment and recovery.
My reality is that I endured a living hell during my treatment and instead of coming out the other side stronger and purposeful I emerged fragile, broken and guilt-ridden. I felt like an imposter during my treatment and at times I have felt like I am now a shadow of a person, full of guilt, regret, and feelings of unworthiness. This sits in stark contrast to the perception that observers to my experience may report. I don’t refer to my experience as a ‘journey’. Instead, I refer to it as Roadtripping to Breast Cancerville, I’m still on the return leg, trying to find my way home.
Most of these people who have seen me in the flesh throughout my treatment and recovery would report that I am back to my ‘pre-cancer’ self (whatever that means). Many people kindly tell me how great I look ‘now’. Sadly, they don’t know the half of it. I am so far from my pre-cancer self that I couldn’t get back there if I tried. That person is a stranger to me in so many ways. I have been irrevocably changed and continue to be transformed.
I have been told many times that I should write about my experience, that I will be helping many other women and men too by sharing my experiences. I’m not the beatific cancer survivor who has emerged butterfly-like from the chrysalis of cancer treatment. The gift that keeps on giving was an expression I often used ironically to describe my experience. If ever there was an experience that warrants this analogy it is Breast Cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Some gifts are unwelcome and unwanted. No sooner have we unwrapped them than we want to re-gift them as fast as we can.
I’m a huge fan of the HBO show VeeP. Selena Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Vice President of the United States quips “Oh yeah, THAT’s a cherry on this whole turd cake”. This became my mantra during treatment when it seemed that everything that could go wrong went wrong. Margins that weren’t clear, allergic reactions to drugs, uncontrollable nausea, extended stays in hospital, intensive care and a ‘recovery’ phase that seemed to stretch on and on.