I never knew I had the ability to experience so many emotions at the same time. The world as I knew it changed in a moment. There was no going back to “before.” This was one of the hardest things to grasp: One day I was a healthy young woman in the bubble of new motherhood, and the next I was told I have breast cancer. I remember feeling like I was floating on air, my feet not on the ground. I couldn’t connect the words “you have cancer” to myself. They just didn’t go together.
In the beginning, I told practically everyone I met walking down the street that I had cancer. I remember thinking, “OK, you think you’re looking at a normal person, but I just found out I have cancer!” I needed everyone to know so I could start believing it myself. But a surprising thing happened: A few weeks after my surgery I did a 180 and I stopped telling everyone. I didn’t want anyone to know. It was such a dramatic shift, but then again, that’s to be expected. One day you feel like screaming it out to the world and the next you don’t want to tell a soul. It’s the cancer roller coaster, with emotions and concerns changing from one minute to the next. That’s normal, I came to find out.
Here are some other things you may be feeling now, or will later, and my best advice to help you ride the roller coaster:
Expect that your feelings will change. You may have a day when you’re feeling OK, wanting to talk to your family and friends and be around people, and then the next day you’ll want to be alone. That’s part of processing your new life. Keeping a journal can be very useful when you feel like being alone but want to get your thoughts out in some way. Know that the wide range of emotions and fears and even joys will shift from moment to moment, and that is normal.
Get educated. Of course it’s critically important to understand your diagnosis and to learn the language of cancer as quickly and thoroughly as you can, but do not, I repeat, do not spend too much time on the Internet. It can be overwhelming and too much information can create even more anxiety. Remember: Everyone’s cancer diagnosis is unique and your treatment regimen will be created specifically for your situation. Please try not to read about cancer before going to sleep. Bedtime is a time to try and relax and let go of anxiety. Some deep breathing and a good-night blessing to yourself is a much better way to go.
Ask for what you need. If there was ever a time to be assertive it is now. Choose your doctors carefully and choose health-care professionals who are right for your personality. You need to decide who you want as part of your team of caregivers and doctors, so you need to be comfortable with your choices, since you will be seeing these people for a long time. When you get endless suggestions from people on what doctor to go with, which hospital is most comfortable, which plastic surgeon does the best work, which healers to see, it can make your head spin. You must do your investigating but in the end you will need to decide who and what is best for you. Trust yourself, it will help you feel in charge of your situation which in turn may help you feel more in control emotionally. You know what is best for yourself.
Get organized. Buy a binder and start collecting the necessary information and keep all your appointment, test, and contact information in one place. Decisions need to made fast so the less chaos around you, the better you will be able to manage all that is going on. It’s times like this that a sense of order can really help lessen anxiety. If you know what has to be done when and with whom, you will be less frantic and better equipped to handle the speed at which things are coming at you.
Make a plan of action. A little impatience is a good thing. I know it’s not easy to be bold at a vulnerable time like this, but push to see the doctors you want and get in for the other necessary appointments you need. I found that a take-charge approach to my cancer really helped me feel more in control in an out-of-control situation. Being organized can help ease the feelings chaos and confusion that surround the craziness that a cancer diagnosis brings to your life.
Find a cancer buddy. Many doctors are willing to offer phone numbers of other cancer patients who’ve said they’ll be a support to someone who’s been recently diagnosed or has the same type of cancer. You can be specific and ask for someone your age, with a similar diagnosis and treatment plan. You can also ask your plastic surgeon to see his work by meeting a patient he/she has worked on. I did this and found it hugely helpful to get first-hand guidance and information. Sometimes the biggest relief comes from talking to someone who has walked in your shoes.
Be good to yourself. Remember that a cancer diagnosis is probably the toughest thing you will go through. Be proud of yourself for everything you do that gets you closer to acceptance and healing. Treat yourself well and with extra love and kindness. I quickly realized that a lot of the highs and lows of my cancer journey came from my perspective at any given time and once it hit me that just being alive was something to appreciate, I started feeling more gratitude for my life even with cancer. Even this feeling comes and goes, but I recognize that with the bad news came the “wake up to life” call, and that was definitely good for me. And probably for all of us.
Lori Benson is the director of the film, “Dear Talula,” a documentary chronicling her experience of breast cancer. Lori travels the country sharing her story and using her movie to start a dialogue on critical issues, such as the emotional aspects of breast cancer and the role of family history.
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