By Heather Bonynge
Two of the questions I am most commonly asked as a cancer survivor is, “How did you feel when you were first told you had cancer?” and “What was the first thing you did after you were told you had cancer?”
As I sit here writing this on the evening of my seven year “cancerversary,” these questions are very easy to answer, because every year on this day I essentially relive or re-experience those feelings and that reaction all over again.
I don’t think it is self-destructive or unhealthy to do this, in fact, I think it is quite normal. It’s similar to how every year on July 29 (my daughter’s birthday), I look at the clock at 3:30 p.m. and remember that is the time I finally got my epidural, and then again at 10 p.m., I think about how I told the hospital staff I thought I was ready to push and they asked if I could hold it a little bit longer, and then at 11:34 p.m. I relive the joy of the moment they laid Brynn on my bare stomach for the first time and told me I had a beautiful little girl! These moments are milestones, and good or bad, we can’t help but to put ourselves back into the timeline and emotions from that day.
A day like any other
On December 19, 2008, my day was moving forward as it did on any normal day as a new mom. My daughter, Brynn, was four and half months old, and she was up with the sunrise just as she was on most days. We went about the morning with our usual routine: eat, dress, play, tidy, and nap. Then she would wake up and we would start the whole routine all over again until it was time for her afternoon nap.
That’s when my phone rang. It was my doctor’s office. She told me the results from my biopsy had come in, and she would prefer to give them over the phone as it was a Friday, close to Christmas, and she didn’t want me to have to worry over the weekend why I was coming into the office to see her. I told her that was fine, and that’s when she gave me the news: “You have cancer.”
I didn’t know how to react in the moment I was told I had cancer. None of us did. My husband left work without telling them where he was going. I went upstairs and stood outside my daughter’s bedroom, and just watched her nap. I felt like I was part of a movie that was on pause.
There was still so much I didn’t know. I had so many feelings building up inside of me, but at the same time I felt completely numb. I had no idea what path my life was about to take. All I could focus on was that little girl sleeping in front of me, the immense love and joy I felt for her, and how I no longer knew if I would be around long enough to watch her grow up.
That fear was very real, and honestly too scary to even acknowledge. I tried to push it to the back of my mind, and focus instead on the details of my beautiful little girl; the way her fingers twitched slightly when she slept, the length of her eyelashes fluttering softly against her cheek, and the gentle rhythm of her breathing, which I tried to match to my own.
I continued to watch her, and tried to wrap my head around the news and somehow make sense of it. It felt like in the past ten minutes my life had drastically changed, but at the same time nothing had changed at all. Apart from the merry-go-round of thoughts that were spinning around inside my head, I felt exactly the same. Brynn was in front of me sleeping, just like she did every day, the house was quiet, just as it was at this time every day, and the routine of my life continued as though I hadn’t received a phone call from my doctor telling me I had cancer.
And then came the feelings, kind of
Sean walked through the front door at that moment, and I met him at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t say anything, he just hugged me. It was in the sanctity of his grip that my thoughts finally stopped spiraling, and I was able to cry for the first time.
I didn’t allow myself time to cry for too long though. Again, it just made the whole thing too real. I pushed my emotions aside, and immediately started thinking about my plan of action. My doctor hadn’t even gone over this with me yet, but it just made me feel more in control if I thought I was putting something in place, and had some sort of direction to move towards.
I started telling my husband I would have a hysterectomy, I would do whatever it takes; the most important thing was for me to survive for our daughter. I’ve never admitted this to anyone, but it was in the midst of determining my course of action that another fear crept into my mind. Will Sean want to leave me?
I know this probably sounds completely irrational to some of you, it even does to me; but the thought and the fear were real, and something I thought of often throughout my treatment and even into survivorship. Sean has never done anything to drive this fear; he has been a pillar of support from the beginning. Despite that, I couldn’t help but think I was young, vivacious, sexual, and I was now facing the possibility of that being completely overturned with a hysterectomy at the age of 27.
It had not even been an hour since I had been diagnosed, but my mind was already racing over the possibility that my sex life was now going to change forever, and even more so, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I would never be able to give my husband more children. Surprisingly, I wasn’t sad about this — yet (the devastation of infertility came later). Instead, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. This was somehow my fault, and it wasn’t fair that Sean had to be penalized with me.
Later that afternoon, we made our way to my parent’s house, where my sister and her family also were, as they were in town from Edmonton visiting before Christmas. Now, if anyone has been keeping track of my feelings up to this point, I had so far experienced fear, sadness, and guilt since my diagnosis. Upon breaking the news to my family, I felt complete detachment.
I’m going to sound heartless and self-centred here, but I didn’t even think of their feelings, or the possibility that they would have any. By that point, I didn’t think I had any either. I went through the motions of telling them I had cancer, but the entire time I felt like I was talking about someone else. This wasn’t me. I did what they asked, I made phone calls to the doctor, I answered their questions the best I could, but I felt like I was doing all of this on behalf of someone else.
I remember watching my mom quickly wipe a tear away from her eye. I can’t speak for her, but I know she was trying to appear strong, and didn’t want to show me the real fear she was feeling. In truth, she only finally half admitted that fear to me last year when she first started reading my blogs, and for the first time today she put into words the truth to how she felt on the day of my diagnosis:
“… on this day seven years ago, our daughter told us that she had cervical cancer. My first terrifying thought was that we were going to lose our beautiful daughter to cancer just as I had already lost my mom and brother.”
We all tried to protect each other and be strong for one another, because the truth and fears that surround a cancer diagnosis, can just be too much for anyone to be honest about.
Seven years later, I can finally be honest about my feelings, but it took me a long time to get here. Apart from the fear we deal with every day after we receive a cancer diagnosis, there is fear itself in be honest with ourselves about it.
If I am being honest though, there has been an extreme sense of relief and freedom that has come with me finally admitting these feelings, and allowing myself to really feel them! It has given me the direction I so desperately tried to navigate right from the first day of my diagnosis, and it continues to give me clarity and understanding of the path I came from.
I would love to hear some of the fears, anxieties, and even “irrational” thoughts you have experienced with your own cancer diagnosis, or a hardship you have faced in your life. If I have learned anything, it is that the truth can set us free, and that we are definitely not alone in our feelings. There is so much strength and support we can gain from our community, and so much we can give back by sharing our feelings, being honest, and connecting with one another.
Live life on purpose.