Looking back at my early experience with Stage 4 Breast Cancer, I have identified at least five phases I transitioned through while learning to cope with my diagnosis:
Shock and Awe
Betrayal and Despair
Loneliness and Loathing
Complying and Compensating
Adapting and Advocating
These five phases are groups of feelings and reactions that came in waves. Some overlapped and even recurred on occasion. It’s a little like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides. One minute I would be feeling fine and getting through my day. Then, a moment later, I would feel this wave of emotion wash over me. It would generally reduce me to tears. I would think about losing my family and having a prognosis that predicts my life will be cut much shorter than I had hoped. As I experienced it, each phase gradually dissipated to be taken over by another less debilitating phase; until you finally feel strong and in control intellectually and stable emotionally. I believe it’s all part of the healing process.
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Excerpt from the Intro:
My Oncologist told me that the recent Pet Scan confirmed my cancer had spread to my bones. Cancerous lesions were found in my left scapula, sternum, thoracic and lumbar spine, sacrum, pelvis and the head of the right femur. The spread seemed so odd to me. I had this instant vision of a bolt of cancer-carrying lightning entering my left shoulder blade and traveling obliquely down my spine and pelvis, then out through my right groin area. That I could understand. But telling me this cancer spread to these areas randomly just seemed so absurd to me. Well, that’s cancer for you. OR was it that I was in denial? To me, it seemed this cancer was irrational, and in fact, pretty random.
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Excerpt from Phase 1: Shock and Awe
The room had darkened considerably around the edges, but there was a very bright light in the center, although it seemed a distance away. I willed it back into view. I looked at my husband who was standing in the corner with his back to us sniffling quietly, and my youngest daughter who was sitting on the chair weeping softly into a tissue. I was sitting on the edge of the treatment table like I was frozen in time. I finally said, “Well, it could be worse.” My Oncologist said nothing. I sensed that she wanted us to have the time to respond or to take it all in before going on. No one said anything. The seconds seemed like hours. After a moment, I said, “Of course, it could be a lot better.” The room filled with light, scattered laughs.
Excerpt from Phase 2: Betrayal and Despair
I felt betrayed by the medical community. Faithfully getting annual mammograms that proved negative, with the exception of one the previous year…but that was followed up by a stereotactic breast biopsy that came back negative…I clearly felt let down, in fact…it was more like I fell between the cracks and into a hole that went to the deepest caverns of the earth’s core…too far to be reached. So, the tumor grew and grew. It had no choice. It gave out its typical warnings, but they weren’t heeded.
Excerpt from Phase 3: Loneliness and Loathing
Cancer can cause you to feel lonely even when you’re not alone. Unless you’re in a room with people who have cancer, you can’t help but feel different. This feeling that sets you apart, puts some distance between you and others. You don’t will it and they may not even be aware of it, but it’s there. I often found myself immersed in wild thoughts careening through my day, of a shortened life, losing all that I hold dear, not being able to see things through that matter to me, not seeing young family members achieve their various milestones in life, or even see my young grandson of three enter kindergarten. No one will live forever, but this terminal existence is like a time bomb ticking inside your head. It can consume you. It’s unnerving. Its not just life changing, its life ending.
Excerpt from Phase 4: Complying and Compensating
You may not live a whole lot longer than the predicted lifespan you have been advised of, but you will do everything within your capability to overcome side effects, preserve your life and keep your spirits up….at least, that’s what I did. An antidepressant picked my mood right up. After that, I felt indomitable. I believed I could take on this bully that had come into my life and show it a thing or two. Come on cancer, I’m ready for you!
Excerpt from Phase 5: Adapting and Advocating
Once you have soldiered on for awhile and learned all you can do to manage your cancer with a specific treatment plan, you begin to look around you and see beyond the tips of your fingers. You are finally stable and feeling more like your old self, except for the lingering fatigue and joint or muscle aches and pains. It may not be time to party yet, but it’s certainly time to look around at how you can improve the quality of your life. I may not be around as long as I had hoped, but I soon came to this conclusion:
“If you can’t put more years into your life, put more life into your years!”