By Pauline Leslie, L.C.S.W.
A few days before Christmas, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. An old ladies’ disease, I thought. I had been thinking perhaps a bit of jewelry might be coming my way from yummy hubby. Instead it was more than a bit of carcinoma, damn.
Such a bore to have to tell your family that you’re about to be operated on, chemo-ed and blasted with more radiation than seems reasonable. Six months on and I still feel like I glow in the dark.
While the diagnosis itself was surreal, as a fit and healthy woman it felt almost ridiculous that a full mastectomy was required. I couldn’t really believe that goobies were growing in my nicely rounded left D-cup.
I was quite attached to my left breast as it matched the right one and I think things that come as a set should stay that way. Think hands, feet, bookends. Even Noah was a staunch supporter of the “pairs thing”.
While the joys of the various breast cancer treatments were no walk in the park, the things I struggled with most were the “well intended” comforting words that came from all and sundry. It’s a bit like when you’re pregnant and everyone has something to say.
On waking up after a three hour operation minus my left breast but with a paralysed left arm, I heard the first of many interesting comments that would come my way.
The Doctor said “this arm paralysis complication is extremely rare and hardly ever happens”! This, while being looked at as though I had just won the lottery. Wow, this only happens to about one in twenty thousand people!
I immediately thought “ohluckyme” to be so special. Thank goodness yummy hubby was there to hold my gammy hand. Pleased to say my brachiacal plexapethy “resolved itself” in the following weeks.
You suddenly realize how helpful it is to have two working arms when it comes to blowing your nose while crying, BECAUSE your arm doesn’t work!!!!
But I digress. About six weeks after my operation I encountered my second and possibly my most repeated “kind words”. At a BBQ it was mentioned that I was recovering from an operation, and the woman sitting beside me launched into a speech about just how common breast cancer is! “Oh my, it really is just like the common cold isn’t it, don’t worry I know you’ll be fine,” she stated.
Smiling politely, I extracted myself from the table and went and sat in the loo, where I admonished myself for feeling so dreadful in the past weeks. Considering all I had was the equivalent of the common cold and here I was thinking I had something, like, really serious.
On another occasion I was asked if I had considered having the other one “whipped off” at the same time? Because as “Mrs I must tell you what I think” felt the need to inform me she “only has really small breasts so it would hardly make a difference”.
Another caring soul told me that as I had the only child I was likely to have I really didn’t need them anymore; really they are “just pieces of meat”.
Perhaps that’s how she feels about her breasts, but it’s not how I felt about mine, had she had the sensitivity to ask. Pathetic of me really to feel like I was entitled to both of my breasts, just like most women will have till the grave.
And yes, I know she was only trying to be nice. But if I lost an ear in an accident can I expect someone to say, why not whip off the other one?
After all you don’t really need it.
Zebras don’t really “need” their stripes either but I’m sure when they are wandering the savanna they kinda like fitting in with the whole zebra stripy look. Just like us girls and the whole two breasted feminine look. I had to remind myself to “be compassionate”.
Then there is the person, who for your own good I assume, will inform you of what Jesus thinks. I was told “the big guy wants you and he will bring you to your knees before lifting you up again” Oh pleeeeze, give me a break!
I must remember to ask her about the direct line she must have to the Lord.
Ahh the list goes on. While enjoying the latest treatment for the common cold, chemotherapy, I was told not to worry about my baldness because “your hair will grow back”. Oh really, I didn’t know that!!!!! Being informed of this fact countless times made me feel just wonderful… Not!
I’ve had more empathy for a badly cut fringe. Friends and I would sit around plotting to blow up the offending salon, or wish incurable armpit dermatitis on the hairdresser. But sadly chemo is one of those things that takes and just keeps taking. My fringe wasn’t going to be back anytime soon.
Bless yummy hubby for taking me gently by the hand to the bathroom to shave off the last of the Gollum-like strands. He said “best to use your toothbrush for doing your teeth not brushing your hair”. And double bless him because he didn’t inform me of that extraordinary piece of information “that it would grow back”. He just hugged me and my son gave me one of his beanies, a really cool one with skulls on it. Then came the consolation prize; you lose every hair on your body EXCEPT for your leg hair.
For a woman who doesn’t leave the house without mascara, months of life without eyelashes and eyebrows is pretty tough. The fact that in six months time I won’t be follically challenged isn’t very heartening at the time. To quote a young person’s take on it “it was tore up from the floor up” Interpretation: “that sucks”.
Having had “bad hair days” from birth, mine being straight and fine, the only hair product promising volume and body that I don’t own hasn’t been invented yet. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually fall for those hair advertisements that show long thick silken tresses that are all achieved by simply using a particular product.
So in the past I would buy products in the vain hope that hair wasn’t governed by genes or hormones. I would have happily eaten my own spleen if it meant thick wavy hair.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered the beginnings of a soft curl as my hair began to grow back. Oh joy of joys when I now step out of the shower with wet hair all I need to do is spray in some product, all be it a whole new range of products for curly hair, and I’m ready to go. Happy does not begin to describe how wonderful this is for me! I was telling a friend how thrilled I was to have “hair happiness” only to be told by a woman who overheard our conversation “it wont last, it will go back to how it was before.” I didn’t even know this person, who well and truly burst my bubble.
I then encountered a woman who insisted that I would be not only a “stronger person but a better person” as well for my experience. According to whom? Was I so bad before?
Better to me would be taller, smarter, younger or being able to fully understand the issues of the Middle East, that would be better! So once again “kind words” left me feeling like I just wasn’t acknowledging all the wonderful things I had to learn from this cold.
“Mrs ahhh don’t worry about it, it’s only cancer” announced, “Oh if you’re going to have cancer, breast cancer is the best one to have because it’s curable.” Gee, I must have missed the headline that said “Breast Cancer Cure Found”. So once again I felt like I really was being a bit of a wozzie
I was tempted to ask her to ring my oncologist and inform him, because I think he also missed that edition. The other thing that he must have missed is that if you remain positive all will be well. As a therapist my personal belief is that all feelings should be acknowledged. You know those little ones like loss, grief, sadness, anger. Because walking around with a “positive” smile on your face takes a lot of energy when what you’re really feeling is loss grief sadness and anger!
I know she was trying to be nice, and it was my job to be charitable (again) because after all she didn’t know what to say and felt uncomfortable.
I think the pinnacle of clueless-ness came from a friend who at dinner to celebrate the end of my treatment, described at length her upcoming boob job: How great they were going to look, how fabulous they were going to be and how wonderful it would be for her self-esteem.
This actually happened twice, except the second woman had already had the boob job and proceeded to tell me how happy she was with them, how wonderful they were, how great it was for her self-esteem blah blah blah. And they say kids can be cruel……..
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them for having something I don’t but its a bit like talking to a friend who has just lost a foot and you showing off your new Jimmy Choo’s. Maybe I’m being a little unreasonable but it struck me as a tad insensitive.
Another learned lady who hardly knew me told me that her sister-in-law had also had breast cancer two years ago. When I asked how she was doing the woman said “Oh it’s come back in her liver”. She then proceeded to look totally stricken.
So once again I knew it was my job to reduce her anxiety and put her at ease. I did this by telling her I had had a really good week, because when I had checked my e-mail that day I found that I had won a European lottery that I hadn’t entered and that I could also get medication to extend the penis I don’t have by 5cms! Who says I’m not lucky?
And again I know she didn’t mean anything by it, and I really need to be a bit more gracious, but really it’s so simple to say the right thing, even my
10-year-old can do it.
Instead of platitudes and space-filling verbiage all anyone needs to say is “I heard you were not well, I hope you will be OK”………. FULL STOP! I think anyone can learn that.
Thankfully most of my close friends and family were and continue to be just like a human wonder bra, supportive and uplifting.