Each of us experiences cancer differently. We had an anonymous chat with a two-year breast cancer survivor, who offers the ups and downs of sharing stories with others.
Brilliantly: Thank you so much for spending time with me today. I really appreciate your willingness to tell me about how you’re doing. At Brilliantly, we’re always looking to support women as they find their way towards a new normal. When we last spoke, you told me that you’re trying to find peace again.
TH: I’m private. I don’t mind talking about my experience with breast cancer to other women, but it’s mostly a question of privacy. This is a private thing that happened to me. I still feel vulnerable.
Brilliantly: Of course, I understand that. I think our responses to these kinds of situations are unique and I don’t think you’re alone in wanting to keep your life private. I’m wondering if you are part of, or have the desire to connect with a group that understands your experience?
TH: I went to a luncheon with a group of women who all worked together and had an experience with breast cancer. I was invited by one of them to attend. I said ‘no’ the first time, and ‘OK’ the second time. There were about nine women, and I couldn’t deal with it. Everyone talked about their experience or reoccurrences and I wasn’t ready to hear about it. I came home more depressed than ever. It was scary. Everything came back again for me.
Brilliantly: I could see how that would be difficult. Hearing someone else’s story might make us feel less isolated in our experience, but also afraid of what might happen in the future.
TH: I want to just try to not think about it so much, but I find myself thinking about it way too much. Going to that luncheon made me realize that I wasn’t ready to be with people. It was too intimate.
Brilliantly: Is there something that would help you?
TH: I don’t know. Maybe if it was with a group of women who I’d been friends with already, who I could relate to, who were part of my milieu. But really, anyone who has had breast cancer I can relate to, I can understand. It might be a good thing for me.
The difficult thing though, I’ve found, even when I feel like sharing is that I sometimes feel guilty. Even though I had a double mastectomy— I am so lucky it was caught so early-—I didn’t need treatment. And I feel guilty when I talk with women who had more advanced cancer or who are dying. I get to still experience life. It’s a big difference. It’s difficult to know what to say.
Brilliantly: Right. It’s difficult to know what to say. Of course you don’t want to upset anyone. We all have a unique experience and finding the right way to tell your story isn’t easy. You’re an artist, so you’re constantly communicating your ideas visually. Do you think that your experience has changed your art?
TH: I don’t think so, but maybe. As long as I am working in my studio, on days when I’m busy making art, I don’t think about cancer. My mind doesn’t turn to fear. But I feel unbalanced in my art, but maybe in myself. I’m not sure how I’m going to find balance.
Brilliantly: Having reconstructed breasts contributes to that feeling, I think. There’s something foreign in your body. You look different, and feel different. Do you think that’s true for you?
TH: I feel awkward in my new body as I am constantly physically aware of the implants I still feel twinges of nerve pain, lumps and bumps that frighten me. I don’t know what my husband thinks about them. And I notice that my friends hug me differently, treat me a little differently. Although, that could be in my head.
Brilliantly: Do you think that will change with time? I have friends who say they’ve forgotten that I’ve had a mastectomy or that my breasts are reconstructed.
TH: Yes! I’ve had friends say that, too. It’s not hurtful, but it’s hard to imagine forgetting. This is a major part of me. Of my experiences. Now that it’s “over,” my friends, and maybe my husband, don’t think about it anymore.
Brilliantly: But it’s not really over for you. You’re still figuring out how to get back to being yourself it sounds like.
TH: That’s right. It’s not over. It’s everyday. I think about it every day. It has changed my friendships, how I spend my time. I find that I’m pickier about who I spend my time with and that I have less patience than I used to for some people. There is an urgency. I want to fit things in.
It’s also changed how I feel about myself and my body. I am uncomfortable with the feel of the reconstructed breasts and the way they look even though I feel lucky.
And my relationship with my husband is different. He doesn’t say much, and I don’t know what he feels when he touches my reconstructed breasts. I’m afraid to ask. He was very present and available when I was diagnosed and in treatment. I’m not sure if he thinks that I’m cured and fine and should move on, or if he’s afraid about the future, too.
Brilliantly: Maybe it’s a bit of both. Have you asked him? Perhaps he feels like this is your struggle even though it’s an experience that informs all of your life now. Maybe he needs to you to ask—needs your permission—to tell you what he thinks or that he feels afraid.
TH: I am afraid, I think. Yes, I think I’m afraid to ask. It’s emotional and maybe I don’t want to know. But, we should talk about it. Perhaps it won’t be so scary to know.
But all this doesn’t matter because I am moving forward. I have learned so much. I am stronger than ever. I have more compassion towards others. I have more love and understanding. I am alive and well.