I always assumed I was invincible. I imagine most other young people do too. Two years ago when I lifted my arms up to hug my fiance before bed, my arm rubbed up against a large lump that wasn’t there before. Of course I was petrified, and about three weeks later I learned that it was a perfect reaction; I had stage three breast cancer. I was only 28-years-old.
Three thoughts swam through my mind when my GP told me the news: “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my hair,” “Oh my God, I won’t be able to breast feed my future children,” and lastly I thought “Oh my God, I could die.” I’m not sure how long the shock lasted, but I think it probably lasted throughout the year of treatment.
Immediately after hearing my diagnosis, I automatically stepped into the role of the strong, brave, young woman with the positive attitude that I was going to beat this “thing.” I suppose by putting on this fake, brave face, I denied myself the reality of the situation so I didn’t fully realize that death was lurking around the corner, slowly squirming towards me like the slime that “it” is. And maybe this denial, or attitude as others put it, is what helped me fight this awful illness, so in a way I am grateful.
I say I had a fake brave face because I don’t think I was all that brave; I was scared and mad and depressed. I just did my best not to let on that I was feeling those sentiments. I did what I had to do to survive all of the different anxieties that surrounded me.
Mainly, this bravado was for other people around me, and not only my family and friends, but even strangers who asked me what my story was (while I was standing in line at the supermarket concentrating on not throwing up or passing out, no less!). I felt I had to be strong for my loved ones because I knew they too were petrified, and they were often on the phone passing along the message to out of town, worried relatives of how brave I was and how strong I was and how my attitude alone could beat cancer. I surely couldn’t start crying now; couldn’t show how angry and depressed I felt because I might disappoint them, or scare them into thinking I might die if my attitude wasn’t positive.
I spent some time in the shower or bathtub crying, so that no one would hear me. I think I only cried on my mom’s shoulder once or maybe twice, and my fiance hardly saw me cry. He’s a man’s man, and I didn’t think he’d really understand that sad, depressed emotions are sometimes uncontrollable. He understands better now, thankfully, but to this day, I still don’t feel completely understood by him like I do by other cancer patients and survivors. He has been an angel in disguise, and I am blessed to have him in my life, as I am with my mother, family, and friends. But no matter how much they love me, and no matter how much they want to understand how I feel, I don’t think they can.
Going to a support group during my treatment didn’t interest me at all because I would have seemed weak, perhaps. If I needed to talk to anyone, why couldn’t I just talk to my mother or fiance? Mainly, because I didn’t want to burden them further. Besides, I had gone to the “Look Good Feel Good” program at the hospital, hoping to have my spirits cheered by learning how to apply make-up to hide the awful greenish colour of my skin. But I left feeling worse because firstly, I was the only one without hair, and secondly, the ladies there had silver, white, or grey hair.
I felt angry again, listening to these women go on about their problems (no winter trip to Florida this year) while I was thinking I’d never be able to have the only dream I’ve ever had: to have children. I was so angry that they had had their chance at life already, but mine was still at the beginning! I wasn’t even married yet!
Because of the chemo-induced menopause, I only had a 25 per cent chance of ever having a menstrual period again, and I must admit that news really depressed me. Even though my fiance and I had talked about adopting children before the diagnosis, I still felt really depressed because I thought it was totally irresponsible of me to consider having children if I had such a high percentage of recurrence. That thought still crosses my mind every day.
It wasn’t before the end of my treatments, when I started radiation treatments about 11 months into this whole ordeal, that I really started to accept my feelings. Or rather, it was a time when I couldn’t hold them in any longer. I was crying, lying on the table under the machine, and a very sympathetic young, technician asked me if I could spare a few minutes afterwards to speak to a social worker. I did, and she told me there was a new support group at the hospital called Connextions 18-35, and it might be the perfect outlet for me.
So I contacted the social worker who ran the group, and she invited me to the next meeting. Connextions 18-35 is a “small but mighty group” of young patients and survivors who meet once a month at the hospital. Some of us have become friends outside of the hospital group which is fabulous. Some members of our group have passed away. When Heather died last year, we were so obviously saddened by her passing, not only because she was such a lovely, brilliant and wonderfully spirited young lady, but also I think, because she was “one of us.” She was only 34-years-old. There goes that invincible theory again.
We still think of Heather often, and we talk about her to our newest members. And it’s really hard to look around the room every month, and think that maybe some day, someone else could succumb to this awful disease.
But we continue on. Some of us are still in treatment, and some of us are in remission. We are all at different stages of our lives but we all have cancer and our age group in common. It is so important for us to have this connection because grey-haired ladies like the ones in the LGFG program probably can’t understand what it’s like to be in your teens or twenties, single, with little or no insurance, no long term spouse, no established career, and no mortgage paid for. We have to rely on our parents again for financial, emotional and physical help. That’s a tough one for an independent young person. And it’s even worse for those whose families live far away.
I was so blessed to have my fiance who could work part time in order to be with me through it all. My sweet mother, who was retired, was able to stay with us during chemo weeks. I was also blessed to have the group and our social worker to talk to in the late part of my treatment. If I could give advice to any young person with cancer, it would be to join a group sooner than later.
If one isn’t organized in your hometown, talk to a social worker or nurse, and see if one could be started. It only takes two to start! Otherwise, there are many options online for us to voice our opinions or ask questions on various forums. I wish I would have gotten connected with other young people sooner. Late is better than never, and I feel much, much better now.