When I sat down to write this blog post, I was unsure of how to tackle the writing – What could I have to offer that is of interest and value? If you have lived breast cancer yourself or through a loved one, you get it. You know the treatments, side effects, and the never ending merry go round of doctors’ appointments. So I thought about my journey. Not my medical journey, but my emotional journey. It has been quite a ride – one that neither I nor my family was particularly well-prepared for.
So what were those emotions? You name it, we felt it: fear, guilt, anger, worry, insecurity, joy (weird, but it was there). We were so afraid with the initial diagnosis – a 90% chance that it was malignant – frightening words to hear. We were scared of the unknown in front of us, scared about death. I was scared about leaving family behind and about telling people; particularly my daughter. How do you tell an eight 8 year old girl that her mom has cancer and may die? We made the conscious decision to be truthful with her. We were also hopeful and positive when we told her but we needed to be truthful because we didn’t know for sure if I would survive. There were no guarantees.
The fear was mixed with anger, guilt with worry. Did I do something to cause cancer? Was it my diet, was some higher being getting back at me for some reason? Had I done something, anything, to either cause it or deserve it? I’m no angel, but this was a cruel punishment. And there was so much worrying; how would I respond to chemo, would I be throwing up for five months, would I be totally incapacitated and unable to be part of my family’s life? These thoughts kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning for countless nights at the start of my journey. Throughout that first month following the diagnosis, when daytime was consumed by work and tests, and evening by my family and more tests, the nights were reserved for worry and fear. And with the inevitable exhaustion that came from both the sleepless nights, the endless worry, and the actual treatment side effects, came massive levels of insecurity. I anticipated the possibility (I refused to acknowledge it was a certainty) of hair loss and purchased a wig about two weeks before treatment started.
I am by nature a relatively secure person. I am confident in how I look, how I feel and how I present myself. All that changed 9 days after my first chemo session when handfuls of hair came out in the shower. I had to not just get my hair cut, but totally shaved off and I had to get the wig. Would people know it was a wig; how would my daughter react? I didn’t realize until it was gone how much value we place on hair and how much society wraps up self-worth in hair. In less than a minute, my hair was gone and I had a wig. On the bright side, I told myself, I would have salon-styled hair every single day, and my getting ready time would be cut almost in half. But how would people respond? Would I have the courage to go out without the wig? Could I stand wearing the wig through the summer? My daughter’s reaction was the one I most worried about – I let her play with the wig, try it on and place it on my head so she wasn’t afraid of it. But she was scared. I didn’t have normal Mommy hair anymore and my ‘baldy’ head, as we called it, was a constant, visible reminder that all was not right. We tried to make it easier – I suggested she rub my head for luck whenever she needed it, just to make it seem less scary.
Hair loss brought to the fore the first of my insecurities about my appearance. Society is harsh on women. We are judged by our appearance - hair, skin, the size and fullness of our breasts – everything is fair game. By the end of summer 2015, I was bald, I had only one breast and five little black tattooed dots on my chest in anticipation of radiation – hardly society’s view of beauty. It was really hard to accept that this was a new normal. Sure, the hair would grow back, though differently, but that breast wasn’t growing back without surgery and those dots are forever marks. By the end of radiation treatments in late 2015, I also developed a permanent suntan under my left arm. My chest with its one breast, scarring, 5 tattoo marks and dark patch, combined with curling grey hair, did not make me feel the image of beauty.
I struggled with this for a while and saw a therapist as I worried about falling into a depression, not simply over my appearance, but from the stress and anxiety of the entire ongoing journey through and with cancer. I was lucky; I didn’t go down that path. I had then, and have now, an amazing network of support in my husband, my daughter, who now finds my hair kind of cool, and my extended family and friends. While I don’t consciously seek validation of my appearance, it’s nice when someone simply says ‘you look good’ and isn’t implying ‘despite the cancer thing’. I joined support groups and took part in workshops at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and have been taking advantage of any opportunity to improve my confidence.
One of these opportunities came along recently with Forget for a Moment – an evening of food, friendship and pampering created by Colleen Kanna and supported by so many organizations and businesses with no reason to help but to make us smile and help us forget for a bit what we have been and are experiencing. It was an opportunity to meet and spend the evening with women who understand when you say ‘I’m so tired’ or ‘I can’t focus in a meeting’. We were surrounded by care but not pity or sympathy – just smiles from volunteers who seemed genuinely moved at the idea of simply making us feel better. We had food, gift bags, beautiful and comfortable adaptive clothing from coKANna, hair styling and makeup – all designed to make us feel better, feel normal for a night and to help us on that path through not just physical recovery, but emotional recovery.
My journey with cancer will never end. I have the physical, visible reminders of the trauma to the body, the mind and the soul. I also have the joy of forging new friendships and relationships with some of the strongest women I will ever meet. And that is the joy in the darkness.
Article written by Denise Corbett, mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend and traveller through breast cancer.