The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Reality of Breast Cancer

by Nicole PielaPatient, Breast CancerSeptember 13, 2023View more posts from Nicole Piela

Cancer comes with a mixed bag of emotions. I started out with denial, so part of that was the absence of language. I didn’t say that I had “breast cancer” and I barely reference it by name. I will say “my diagnosis” or “this situation” or “what I’m going through.” I don’t acknowledge its presence in my life because I don’t want it to define me or become too much a part of my life. Although it is. 

I told a coworker “I don’t want to be remembered for this.” So along with the absence of language and labeling this disease in conversations, I haven’t been posting on social media about it. I don’t want to acknowledge it. I go to my appointments, and I’m starting my first day of chemo as I write this. I’m propped up in a corner space with a curtain for privacy, somewhere on the 8th floor in the Cancer Center. Maybe the denial is still there. I have been able to talk about it. I had to tell people at work as I ended up being out for six weeks post-mastectomy on FMLA. I told them then, and even saying, “I have breast cancer” didn’t resonate with me. It isn’t me. 

All of this came as a whirlwind after my first screening mammogram. Which was followed in quick succession with additional imaging, biopsy, and lumpectomy. I remember the doctor telling me with the biopsy that they are “usually benign,” and I thought, “Not all of them are.” Following one of the additional imaging sessions, the staff member, maybe a radiologist, came in and talked with me about further imaging and a biopsy. It wasn’t her words that I remember, but the tone. The tone told me she saw me as a cancer patient; something had changed in her approach and I knew she saw me differently. She talked about needing the images reviewed and they would explain it to me. But her tone told me she knew something already. After the lumpectomy was scheduled, the surgeon couldn’t tell me how much he would take out, so I went anxiously into surgery and was left with a two-inch scar after a fourth of my breast was removed. As I received the pathology report saying I had invasive cancer, even that seemed surreal. That’s when denial set in.

After those initial experiences, it was at that point I decided to go to a well-known cancer treatment hospital, which I have been thankful for with each appointment. So I have talked about it, told my work and family. After reading the report with my diagnosis, I didn’t tell anyone besides my husband for a solid week. I worried about my family and how they would take the news, how I didn’t want to make them worry. When I did tell them, I told them individually and just came out and told them, “I have breast cancer.” There is no other way to say it. 

I’ve experienced denial and anger related to having this diagnosis, and I see it in my own actions and feelings. I’ve reacted with anger at random, seemingly insignificant triggers. Thinking, “I’m the one going through it” or in conversation with others, thinking, “At least you don’t have cancer,” or “It’s not as bad as cancer.” Cancer becomes a barometer for your life. Without meaning to, you compare situations and rate significance on this scale of life-threatening or not. When I was home after my mastectomy, I had a tissue expander in, still leaving me with a relatively flat side of my chest. The visiting nurse came for a couple of visits and she asked me if the nipple “will stay like that.” Phrases and comments like that stand out in my mind and go with me as I look back on this journey.

I’ve realized people have different ways of responding when you tell them you have cancer. People either use words or actions as a response. Some offer help, ask what they can do, or they tell you stories of someone else who had cancer. That was a common occurrence, which made me realize: 1. how common a cancer diagnosis is, and 2. It’s how people can relate. Some of these stories of other people also came with an offer of reaching out, for someone to talk to. That was thoughtful and helpful, and I did end up reaching out to one of them. Another way people help is with actions. They will deliver food or send gift cards. I was blown away, and still humbled, by the support from my coworkers. Almost immediately, a food meal chain was set up with food deliveries each week, along with thoughtful gifts. That made me feel loved and cared for, that I had a support system. My sister is a radiation therapist, so our conversations have been helpful because she understands this field and the treatment process. I talk with my husband, mom, and dad. I started seeing a psychologist for counseling sessions. It helps me to talk openly about what I’m going through, how I feel about it, and what’s happening with my appointments. Every week is different, and the emotions vary day to day. Some days are more optimistic, others I feel the weight of this diagnosis and its implications for my future.

I’m a private person and would say I’m an introvert. I don’t like being the center of attention. I don’t see myself as a “survivor” because other people have had a worse prognosis than me. My “battle” doesn’t seem as hard as others’. I’m not losing my life to this; I see it as treatable. I think words like “survivor” and “brave” apply to those who fight through sickness, multiple rounds of chemo, appointments, and aggressive, advanced cancers, or metastatic cancers. I can name several people I see as brave. My aunt who passed from metastatic breast cancer after a recurrence ten years later and suffered bone pain. My husband’s mother, who would have been my mother-in-law, if I ever got the chance to meet her, suffered from cancer and treatment that came too late. A family friend’s mother and grandmother. These are the women who are brave and strong in my eyes. For the ones that I’ve been lucky enough to know, they have also been supports as I go through this treatment. I can easily text a loved one who knows exactly what I’m going through. I wish my aunt was here and I could bounce all of my questions and concerns to her and ask about her experience. I wish I could have met my husband’s mother, my daughter’s grandmother, who she will never know. Words like “brave” and “survivor” apply to them.

This whole experience has been a turning point in my life. There is a “before” and “after” a significant life event. I see the world differently, empathize more, and find more meaningful moments in a day. I am burdened at times by the reality and gravity of this diagnosis, but look for ways to find normalcy and enjoy the precious moments that I can. My daughter helps me with that, as her innocence, laugh, and constantness keep me appreciative and enjoying life.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *