Breast Cancer and Me: An Accounting

You can’t go through an ordeal like breast cancer without being changed in significant ways. While the experience itself was difficult, some of the consequences are – frankly – wonderful. Would you be surprised to read there are “best parts” to having breast cancer?

First, of course, it broke me down in many difficult ways. It forced me to reconsider my belief system, my values, and my ego. For instance:

  1. I hoped to heal myself using only holistic methods. Having to acknowledge it wasn’t working was more frightening than the initial diagnosis. Before I could start chemo, I worked with a hypnotherapist and used visualizations for a more positive mindset about the drugs. That helped a lot.
  2. Ah, vanity! It was surprisingly, heartbreakingly hard to lose my hair. The first wig, that I’d bought when I still had my hair, felt weird and uncomfortable once I was bald. A week later, I splurged on a good one. It was worth every penny to feel normal and pretty as I coped with the physical changes happening to me. (That’s me in the photo, happily wig-less 3 months post-chemo, on the beach at Santa Cruz)
  3. Muscle loss. At 55 I had a bangin’ bikini body. Post chemo, not so much. Chemo disrupts protein synthesis, which destroyed the tumor (yay!) but also hair, muscles and bones. The hair grew back first, then my bones. Though I maintained a rigorous exercise program and walked 30 minutes daily…I kept losing muscle. I could not regain an ounce. Finally, I made my peace with it as the cost of healing. Now, three and a half years out, I am trying again, though neither my sense of self nor my self-esteem are inextricably tied to my body fat percentage. That’s a good thing.

Most women gain an average of 11 pounds after chemo. My guess is that given the inevitable muscle loss, it is probably more than that, in fat gain and muscle loss.

4. It was difficult keeping it a secret for so long. I didn’t want my clients to be upset, or scared, or feel they had to take care of me. Plus there is still so much fear around cancer. When I went public about it last fall, it was a huge relief.

But there were “best parts” too.

As a dear friend says “This ain’t my first rodeo.” I’ve been through numerous crises and losses, and there are always surprises about who shows up for you, and who doesn’t. I am eternally grateful to:

  • My friend Gloria, who never let me hire a car to the airport (I did chemo at an integrative clinic in Chicago), and took me shopping every weekend, in every weather, for organic produce. We weren’t that close before this. We are now.
  • My daughter, who picked me up at O’Hare and had dinner with me before each treatment. I can’t imagine how I would have kept getting on the plane without those evenings to look forward to.
  • My sister, who stepped up in a major way, including flying cross country to help after surgery despite our somewhat rocky history.
  • My mom, who put aside her fear and reminded me that she had come through breast cancer and so I could I.
  • My curlygirl hairdresser Claudia, who came to my home first to cut my long curls short; then to shave my head when my hair started falling out; and finally, to style my wig so I looked like myself again.
  • Karen, a stranger who became a friend, who stayed with my beloved pup each time I left for treatment, and wouldn’t take a cent.
  • Friends near and far, who never forgot what I was going through, showering me with inspiration and kindness at unexpected times.
  • The colleagues from my various professional cohorts that generously shared their knowledge and wisdom.

What else changed? I lost the ability to drive myself so hard, and that’s a very good thing. I no longer whip myself into a frenzy to accomplish anything. Instead, I do my honest best, and let it go. The list of things I am willing to give my all to has shrunk dramatically. I am clearer about what is important: the small number of beings I love; the purpose and passion that fuels my work; the importance of kindness, of nature, of showing up with integrity. All these were important before, but are now the lights that illuminate my path. And for that, I am grateful.

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