I’m of an age when my family and friends are growing into health issues — many of them potentially life-limiting. I have no less than six people I know waging war with cancer; different cancers, but all of them determined to be a victor. And when you are up close and talking one-on-one with them, it’s distressing to witness what they endure.
Anne* who has been on this journey of fighting breast cancer for close to two years has learned so much about people, relationships and herself — she has come to realize what love, strength, friendship and support really look like. There are days she laughs out loud and days she crumbles into a pool of tears.
Prior to diagnosis, Anne was a young woman with a full head of hair and an agile body chiseled by running. She wrestled with the removal of her breast and adjusted to the loss of her luscious hair. She feels betrayed by a body hardly able to get out of the recliner and bones “aching like an 80-year-old.” She moved through a period of wondering whether her husband would find her repulsive to laughing about “taking back” everything she and her sisters said about their breasts in their youth — one sister seemed to have “boobs that were too big” and the other “tits that were too small” — a time when nobody felt they were endowed just right. These sisters lived through years of bad hair days too; one with hair that was “too curly” and the other with hair that was “too straight.”
Anne giggled as she commented, “We had no clue then what a bad hair day really was,” adding with a snicker, “I’m having a no-hair day today.”
But the lack of energy has thrown her into a valley of depression. As a marathon runner, she’s acutely aware she’s lacking the “feel good” endorphins released as she runs but describes running as much more than just this.
“When you are running, it’s just you, the pavement and the wind. You become intimately aware of every part of your body. You appreciate sturdy ankles, knees that don’t buckle and the strength of your calf and thigh muscles. You feel your heart beating, hear your breaths, feel your breasts tucked tightly against your chest.”
Frustrated her treatments have left her so weak, she now needs to hold the wall to crawl to the bathroom or lean on her spouse to get to the bedroom.
Anne says, “When everything you had has been stripped away, you feel very vulnerable.”
Anne is fighting this depression with the awareness that “you can be consumed by feeling overwhelmed and afraid” but determined to be courageous. Anne must embrace this each and every day.
“It’s facing one challenge at a time as they pop up. Just trying to get through what you are going through with as much dignity as you can and giving yourself permission to feeling everything,” Ann comments. “There is no right or wrong way to approach this, no good or bad. Just real, authentic feelings, and I’m not going to apologize or make excuses for what I am feeling.”
When I consider what Anne and others I love are going through, I’m aware they all seem to move through stages of grief. These start the very moment they hear the words, “You have cancer…” Obviously most go through denial, “Not me,” “I’m too young,” or “Nobody in my family has had this cancer.” Anne describes her response in terms of thinking the doctor surely was talking about someone else. Initially, she didn’t have an emotional (heart) response to the news; she had an intellectual (head) response as she laid out the details of managing her life and the lives of her children, while attending to surgeries and treatment appointments.
When emotion set in, it was in the form of anger directed at anyone or anything. She was angry at God for allowing this to happen, angry at doctors who didn’t call with test results fast enough, angry at kids who seemed to create more chaos at home when she just longed for stability and routine. All of this anger created stress that assaulted her body, producing physical symptoms such as diarrhea, sleeplessness and stomach pain.
Anne slipped into a period of cognitive fogginess. Who knows whether this was caused by chemotherapy, lack of sleep or emotion? Because she felt confused and disoriented, even uneventful common activities like signing a field trip permission slip for a child were overwhelming.
At about the one-year point, Anne went through a phase where she withdrew and isolated herself from family and friends. Granted, she didn’t have the physical energy for some activities, but she acknowledges much of the time she didn’t have the emotional energy to interact. Too much contact with other people felt like an intrusion and a lot of work. She was trying to come to terms with the fact that her mastectomy and this diagnosis had forever changed her life. She was determined but not yet confident that she WOULD survive and she wavered between wanting to spend as many moments as possible with her children to insulating them from her “in case they needed to adjust to a life without me.”
Most of my friends who get through treatment eventually get to a point of acceptance. They reach a point where they can experience joy again and are grateful for all of their blessings. And, yes, they even take back control of their lives and dare to set life goals again. But Anne is not there yet, she’s moving through the process, but her losses are still pretty overwhelming.
I give her hug and say, “It’s okay. Grief is a natural part of this process and every woman grieves in her own way and in her own time.”
When someone is hurting, it’s natural to hold them in your arms and to rock them. As I cradle her, we listen to Big Daddy Weave sing:
“God, I run into Your arms unashamed because of mercy
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You.”
Then, I substitute Anne for God as I sing:
“You are Beautiful, You are Beautiful
Oh Anne, there is no one more Beautiful
You are Beautiful, Anne.
You are the most Beautiful.”