Life, BC (Before Cancer): Remembering Your Former Self
One day everything is normal, and the next your whole world gets flipped on its head. Life becomes separated into two distinct times; before and after.
Losing your identity
Amid the chaos and confusion, the shock and panic, your identity as you have known it slowly slips away. Quietly. Subtly. You are so busy living in survival mode-mentally, physically, emotionally-that by the time you realize what it is that is off, that is missing, what doesn’t feel "quite right", it is too late. That person is gone. The essence may remain, the favorite foods, the quirks, traditions. But the innocence you once possessed, the faith you had in the world, the trust you held for your own body to not betray you, that is gone. And losing those things does something to a person. Something so profound, so deep, that words are entirely insufficient to explain it. One must experience it to truly understand.
Life before cancer
Lately, I have been thinking of my life, BC (before cancer). I remember my last day as a "normal person" so vividly. It was April 3, 2017. My son was not-yet six months old, my daughter four and in preschool, my eldest six, and in first grade. I had been preparing for the baby’s "half birthday" with decorations for his new high chair, and steel-cut oats for his first baby food. His bamboo bowl and spoon set had just arrived. I was going to pick up more herbs for my tea, too; I brewed my own lactation blend myself. I loved breastfeeding. My baby had never had a drop of formula.
Pain in my breast
That morning, I felt a shooting pain in my breast. I had felt it before, sporadically, but had always forgotten to check it. This time, it happened just as I was taking a shower. I felt my breast and remember the feeling of nausea that came over me. It was a lump, hard, and palpable. This was not like a clogged duct or even mastitis. No, this was something else. I could feel it so clearly as if I could just scoop it out. I wanted to so badly. To rid myself of it, as if it were that simple.
Awaiting a biopsy
Fast forward a few days, and I was awaiting a biopsy. It was the day of my baby’s half birthday, and he wore the glittery paper crown I made him. We had the video camera out and sang, “Happy Birthday to you’’ on our deck overlooking the lake. We were such a happy little family. After so many trials and challenges, our life was finally calm, peaceful. My baby wanted to nurse after his meal, and I sat there with him in my lap, gently sobbing. I knew something wasn’t right. Suddenly steel-cut oats and bamboo bowls and glittery paper crowns didn’t seem so important anymore.
Triple-negative breast cancer diagnosis
I soon found out that my lump was, in fact, breast cancer; stage II triple-negative, invasive ductal carcinoma. "If we could get this chemo in you tomorrow, we would", my oncologist told me. Their sense of urgency scared me. Everything was a whirling mess, a tornado, and I was trapped in the vortex of it all. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, to my family. I remember the day I nursed him for the last time. Afterward, he would try to nurse from me and did not understand why I would not let him do it anymore. I had to "pump and dump" from chemotherapy until my breasts finally stopped making milk. I saw a neon-tint to my breast milk. The look of it made me sick.
No evidence of disease
I went on to lose my hair, my breasts, and some fingernails. When I saw my reflection in the mirror, it was as if a stranger was looking back at me. By summer’s end, I was declared "NED", no evidence of disease, and thought I could pick up the pieces of my broken life. Instead, I found my marriage had fallen apart. By my baby’s second birthday I would be divorced and back to work, teaching middle school, my children, and I live the next town over from our family home.
Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis
About six months later, I found out that a pesky cough I had was a malignant lung tumor. It was breast cancer; stage 4. Things went on to take a bad turn for me, due to my doctor’s putting me on the wrong treatment. The cancer spread like wildfire, and I was back on chemotherapy again. I could no longer maintain my teaching role and retired at 36 years old.
In a short time I said goodbye to some of my favorite parts of myself, and of my life. Being a breastfeeding mother, being a wife, being a teacher. I said goodbye to my home, where not that-long-ago we were celebrating "half birthdays’’ together. We were so innocent.
Today, my baby is three-and-a-half-years-old. I blinked my eyes, and his babyhood was...over. My eldest is ten, and my daughter is eight. We relocated across the country for a fresh start. I am receiving the best care possible; still on chemotherapy, and about to start radiation. Most of the cancer has been resolved, and I am hoping to finally rid myself of my lingering lung metastasis. I want nothing more than many years of remission, to make up for all of the lost time of recent years. I love where I live, and am fortunate to stay home with my children. While I may not teach anymore I do have other exciting career prospects, as well as incredible friends and family. Even my romantic life is pretty exciting these days!
When I think of my life, BC, before cancer, I still mourn for the woman I used to be. The life I used to lead. I wish, just for a moment, that I could go back to April 2nd and relive it again. I long for just one more day of being a "normal person". Now I have a new normal, one I have grown to not only embrace but love. I have learned how to remember my former self while also accepting who I have become. When I look at myself in the mirror, I am proud of who I see staring back at me.
Caregivers: Do you practice self-care?