Surviving a Breast Cancer Diagnosisby Melanie Canter
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I had just turned 30 when I was first diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. I had no family history, so it came as quite a shock to all of us ( my husband, our 2 year- old daughter, our families, our friends and me) as well as my excellent breast surgeon who was 99% convinced that I simply had an infected milk duct.
As I sat in the doctor’s office listening to him explain to me why I would need a mastectomy, while he drew bizarre diagrams of milk ducts and cancer cells, I became acutely aware of the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about breast cancer. Sure, I performed an occasional breast check, and knew the basics about signs and symptoms, but now I was going to have to make life and death decisions and choices about a disease that was taking control of my body and my life - without having any knowledge or expertise about it - whatsoever. I felt completely overwhelmed and helpless. As soon as my out-of-body experience ended, I took my traumatized self home, called for reinforcements (family & friends), and went into action educating myself in the crash course of “Breast Cancer 101.” Fourteen years and two diagnoses later, here are my suggestions for “Surviving a Breast Cancer Diagnosis:”
- Breathe: Before you do anything, take a lot of deep breaths. You’ve just been hit with some really overwhelming information and you need some time to process it. You have a lot of decision-making ahead of you, but before you jump on the emotional roller coaster you need some time to think about it. And you do have time. Nothing is going to happen in the next few days. You’ve probably had the cancer in your body for a long time already…a few days of waiting isn’t going to kill you.
- Research, Research, Research: Now get ready to work. “Knowledge is Power,” so you must get your hands on as much pertinent information as you can get on the subject. Whether it’s books, articles, or the internet, you need to educate yourself quickly and thoroughly so you can understand the language that the doctors are speaking. This will give you a sense of empowerment and control over your situation. You will feel strong instead of helpless. You will be able to ask educated questions, and make informed decisions together with your doctor. Two of the best books for this are: The Breast Cancer Survival Manual, and Take Charge of Your Breast Cancer, both by Dr. John Link, a renown breast oncologist. These books provide invaluable information for the newly diagnosed breast cancer patient.
- Request copies of all of your reports: Ask your doctors for copies of your biopsy and pathology reports, scans and test results, and learn how to read and understand them. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book is great for this. She explains everything there is to know about the breast and breast cancer, from diagnosis to treatment. Again, comprehending the information will help you in making the right treatment choices.
- Get 2nd opinions: Definitely get other opinions if you can. It’s important to have more than 1 doctor look over your reports and pathology, and make sure the treatment that is being prescribed is the right one for you and your situation. Breast Cancer is very “patient specific,” meaning that each individual case has different factors that affect how aggressive your cancer is. You do not want to be under treated or over treated by being “lumped” into a group for convenience sake.
- Choose the right doctor for you and have faith: Every doctor has a different philosophy and a different demeanor, so find one that you love and trust. This is crucial. You want a doctor that you are comfortable with and with whom you can ask lots of questions. Once you and your doctor choose your course of action you need to have faith in what you’re doing, and feel good about it. My therapist once told me, “The body rejects what the mind won’t accept.” Believe in what you’re doing and your body will respond much better!
- Emotional Work & Support: Get help and work hard! Ask yourself, “Why this?” and “Why Now?” See what you can learn from this. Find a good therapist, support group or counselor to help you process all of this new information and all of your new feelings and fears. You may be too busy or overwhelmed to do this while you’re in the midst of treatment and so many appointments—if so, do it afterwards. There can be a period of depression once treatment ends and life must resume “normalcy,” and that can be surprisingly challenging. Surround yourself with family and friends and don’t be afraid to ask for help. A good emotional support system is vital to your survival. Plus it helps those around you too—people want to feel needed.
- Holistic Healing: Cancer is really a whole body experience—and it needs to be treated “holistically.” There are so many things we can do now in conjunction with traditional treatments that can help support our immune systems and keep our minds and bodies healthy and thriving. Whether it’s acupuncture, herbs, yoga, vitamins, prayer groups, healers, energy work, eating healthier, or exercising, finding something “alternative” you can do along with conventional medicine can really strengthen your treatments, boost your health and your spirits.
- Find Your Joy: The biggest thing I think I learned from my breast cancer diagnosis is that life is too short to take for granted and to waste time doing things that make us unhappy. So find something you love to do--do it, be happy, and LIVE! Remember, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” You must be your own advocate and fight for your life. There are more and more strong women LIVING with breast cancer every day. I’m grateful to be one of them, and you can be one too.