I was diagnosed with breast cancer last May. I wrote about my cancer diagnosis and about processing my fear of the unknown cancer treatment in a photo diary. As it happened, I bypassed chemotherapy and moved straight through to radiation. Radiation was administered in a condensed clinical trial which was a 5 week dose given in 3 weeks. The data for the trial will show that the shorter radiation period causes fewer incidences of burning or other problems. I was one of a few thousand who consented to participate in this trial that had already been deemed safe. I was fearful at first but with so much support and encouragement, radiation went by intensely, but passed. When the treatment had come to an end, the radiation therapists gave me a certificate of completion with all of their names on it. Their professionalism and warmth eased the process and made baring my breasts to strangers doable.
Now that the first MRI, post cancer treatment, showed No Evidence of Disease (yippee!!!) I've begun to process the meaning of my cancer experience to becoming a cancer survivor. While everyone's journey is different I wondered what my view would be from the perspective of looking back in time and what gifts I would find hidden in the experience. There were many gifts and blessings, in this diary I've written about a few...
I don't remember why I was at the synagogue on this particular day but I noticed a stack of books on the rabbi's desk by Livia Bitton Jackson. The author, born Elli L. Friedmann in Czechoslovakia, had written a series of 4 Holocaust Memoires and for reasons I was not aware of at the time, I felt compelled to read the books. I read through them imagining the authors fight for her and her mother's survival at Auschwitz; the let down that with liberation did not come freedom; and finally the intense planning and courage it took to escape from behind the Iron Curtain to Austria by way of Bricha. When I finished the books I returned them to the rabbi feeling that something had begun inside me but not knowing what. Then I noticed a book sitting on the table by the door on a pile of mail. I looked through it recognizing the author instantly and asked if it belonged to anyone. I was told to come back in a couple of days and if no one claimed it, I could read it. So I read Elie Wiesel Trilogy, Night - Dawn - Day. During the weeks following surgery and throughout radiation I read books and articles, and viewed web pages of Holocaust survivors. Always bringing me to tears, never noticing the connection, until a few days ago.
One of the things in preparing to be a cancer patient is that you don't know what you are preparing for and how it will impact your daily life. The fact that I had cancer was not a shock, the fact that I would become a cancer patient was. As family and friends were informed, their love and support shielded me from their worries and fears. I still don't know what my husband and parents experienced. I was surprised at the love conveyed to me by everyone because the intensity of their love is expressed differently when their loved one is facing a life threatening illness; their expressions less tempered and more raw. The phone calls from my brother in law, texts from my husband's cousin and Aunt were rays beaming through worries and fear of the unknown. Support from Kossacks was found immeasurable and provided my dose of daily bread. Sara R's quilt... I still cannot find the words to describe the feelings this quilt elicits except to say that when I am wrapped in it there is a sensation of calm and warmth, stitched with love and healing, it's words illuminate what community is all about.
I prepared for a potential leave of absence from my job, yet didn't know how long, if I would be able to work, or if I would continue to look healthy. This was a great concern for me because as a therapist I didn't want to disrupt anyone's treatment or burden them with worries over me if I didn't look well. In particular I was treating a young girl with severe depression and psychosis who seemed to be making some progress in therapy. I didn't want to miss anything because after 2 years, her depression was beginning to lift. As it would happen her families vacation coincided with my leave for surgery.
I devised a plan to continue treating a few client's based on information that many breast cancer patients do work throughout treatment but find it helpful to reduce hours. During the weeks and months following surgery and throughout radiation my goal was to go to work, provide effective therapy and witness her chronic and unsettling depression lift. Like an invisible string that moves you forward when you don't know how to do it yourself, I focused on the strength of this child who was ready to embrace life without the darkness that had consumed her. Each week we met her smiles were bigger and her laughter more often. She accepted praise and didn't object to my way of caring for her. She was fighting less with herself, less with me, and was more open to the loving connections of her family that had been diminished for over two years. As her depression continued to lift time had also gone by and with her transition to no longer wanting to die or needing to be hospitalized came the end of radiation and then lowered radiation fatigue. She was glowing, she was taking care of her appearance, and I had witnessed her light hidden by sadness, anger, and trauma grow brighter and larger. She began to discover what is important to her and how she could be given opportunities to get what she needs. What she described more than anything was a desire to help people, small children, animals, friends, family etc... She had no idea her resolve to choose life would have meaning beyond her own recovery as her desire to want to help people came full circle. Unknowing to her, the therapist right in front her had benefitted from her journey through depression.
As I shared these two experiences with a dear friend and colleague, Miss Judith, she sat back in her chair and said, "You were working on survival." When we work with children and teens we often ask what movies and books they are reading or watching into oblivion because their answers reflect the unconscious themes they are processing, often without awareness. Next up is Primo Levi's account of his journey back home following liberation.
An artistic offering from the intertoobz:
For an experience of light, color, and shadow, put the video on full screen.
Monday Night Cancer Club is a Daily Kos group focused on dealing with cancer, primarily for cancer survivors and caregivers, though clinicians, researchers, and others with a special interest are also welcome. Volunteer diarists post Monday evenings between 7-8 PM ET on topics related to living with cancer, which is very broadly defined to include physical, spiritual, emotional and cognitive aspects. Mindful of the controversies endemic to cancer prevention and treatment, we ask that both diarists and commenters keep an open mind regarding strategies for surviving cancer, whether based in traditional, Eastern, Western, allopathic or other medical practices. This is a club no one wants to join, in truth, and compassion will help us make it through the challenge together.