Breast cancer. According to BreastCancer.org as of January of 2021, 3.8 million women have been treated or diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosis for women, and although death rates are decreasing approximately 1% per year, there is only one other cancer that kills more people and that is lung cancer. These statistics are not new, and we see them posted here and there to promote early detection and self-examinations. What I want to touch on today is the things we don’t hear when it comes to a breast cancer diagnosis.
I met with a beautiful friend who gave me the privilege of an interview based on her accounts of her diagnosis and treatment. My goal is to help my readers understand that you are not alone, to understand the value of support, and the importance of speaking out.
Colleen is a midwife in the pacific northwest. Needless to say, she’s on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year. She schedules vacations around due dates and is a powerhouse not to reckon with. She describes herself as a feminist and advocate for women’s right. She’s fair, understanding, and doesn’t mess around. So, when she got her diagnosis in October of 2016, she experienced a rush of unfamiliar emotions including panic and fear, but she was mostly “irritated because she didn’t have time for this shit” she says to me. It’s easy to chuckle now, but 5 years ago was a different story.
She recalls the memory of when she was told she had breast cancer, “I was scrambling for information and feeling incredibly unsupported by the asshole radiologist who gave me the diagnosis. It’s hard to hear something so difficult, and then to add the smug attitude and condescension didn’t help.”
After receiving the news, her primary care practitioner was able to secure a consult with Dr. Winnie Henderson, a surgeon at Oregon Surgical Wellness. Colleen admitted this wasn’t typical procedure for Winnie to see a patient before receiving the final assured diagnosis but was grateful for the nepotism she believes came from being a midwife and advocate for women’s health.
Colleen is an exception to most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Often times, women find themselves dealing with doctors similar to the asshole radiologist Colleen first met with and you don’t typically have a medical background to research like she did. The circumstance surrounding her diagnosis and treatment were aligned just so she was fortunate to navigate the system with ease and confidence. But don’t get me wrong, she had her fair share of struggles and challenges that still show up today.
Melissa, “What type of support system did you have to help you get through all this?”
Colleen, “It started with my colleague. I wanted someone there with me who knew medical jargon and could hear the things I wasn’t ready to. Then, my very best friend helped to guide me through the treatment options. And of course, my husband and my kids who at the time were only teenagers. And of course, my friend and my mentor who came and cleaned my house and offered to give my husband breaks from caring for me. Which to be honest was a little weird having other people care for me. But when I look back on it, I see the value and I am forever grateful for them.”
Melissa, “During any of this, did anyone offer you mental health support to get you through it all?”
Colleen, “Umm, I think someone at some point handed me a resource folder and their might have been something in there. But no, no one talked to me about getting support. When I would go in for checkups, the doctors and nurses would ask their standard, are you depressed question. I remember telling everyone who asked which was my surgeon, my PCP, and my oncologist and I said, Yeah, a little. And nothing ever happened. They just kept going with their tasks. But I feel I’m fortunate. I have an awareness about myself that helps me get through challenging experiences. But mental health support might have been nice, I don’t know.”
Melissa, “Did you ever consider seeking out mental health support?”
Colleen, “I’m a hard candidate for counseling. I did find one years ago who was a Buddhist and a feminist which was fabulous for me, but then she went a little sideways and too far off the rails for me and she ultimately gave up her license. I haven’t sought out anyone since then. I do a lot of self help reading and reflecting though, and the work I do as a midwife provides opportunities for me to grow and heal.”
Colleen has been involved in women’s health for a long time, and she understands how mental health works and the impact it can have on a person’s over all well-being and the effects it has on their family. I’m also confident she is not the only woman who believes they’re a “hard candidate for counseling.” Finding the right therapist can be challenging for sure. And maybe it’s not a therapist you need but a coach to help guide you versus a therapist to treat you. In either case, it is my belief that every person is worthy of the advantages a professional has to offer
It is important for my readers to understand the value in mental health support through a diagnosis such as this. We all like to believe we’re strong enough to handle anything on our own, but the truth is we don’t have to. We can save that energy to fight the cancer and not just survive but thrive. We can do this by allowing those around us to help us and support us. Build your support network. Find a cancer coach, not everyone has a friend with a medical background and a cancer coach can be that ear and advocate for you. Seek out therapy, or a life coach, or a sex coach, and build your network to give yourself all the advantages to thrive.
Melissa, “When it came time to decide on treatment options, what was that like for you?”
Colleen, “It’s interesting. When they told me treatment options were a mastectomy, I did the obvious next thing and scheduled an appointment at OHSU with a reconstructive surgeon to build me a boob. I was not prepared for what happened next.”
Melissa, “Did you go alone, and what happened next?”
Colleen, “I took my very best friend with me, it was that horrible snowstorm happening up in Portland. The plastic surgeon we met with was female and basically told me everything she could fix about my body. I had just started to love my body again and coming to peace with the fact that I’m getting older and things move. So, what I heard her say was how broken I looked, and she could make it all better. I don’t know, I’ve given birth to two children, I’m in my 50’s, shit is gonna move and I had just gotten ok with it all.”
“After that appointment, Susan, my best friend, says to me, “maybe you go back to considering against reconstruction.” And a lightbulb went off. When she said that my body relaxed, and I felt lighter, and completely at peace.”
Society throws shit at us every day. We see in the movies, on social media, in porno’s what the “ideal woman” looks like. She’s got two beautifully shaped boobs, a small waste and we’re told that’s what it means to be a feminine woman. News flash, that is NOT what it means to be feminine or a woman. Society has constructed a story line about what we should and should not believe, think, and feel. This construct started hundreds of years ago; back when women were considered property of their husbands and only good for fornication. You know, I know, we are so much more than that. To be feminine means to be compassionate, nurturing, and it is not exclusive to women. What it means to be a woman has been ingrained in us, making it difficult to believe anything other than that. But that is exactly what it is, a story we’ve been told.
Melissa, “Now we’re just about 5 years post-surgery. How are you feeling? Do you struggle with your decision, or have you experienced any challenges because of your decision?”
Colleen, “Well, the biggest challenge is finding a bra cuz they don’t make a one boobed bra. The challenges of finding a place that sells what I need definitely contributes to how I feel about my body. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just have my other boob taken then I don’t have to worry about bras or trying to find a fake boob. I went to place here in town a few years back and felt anxious going in and felt attacked once I got there. I left, and never went back.”
The choice against reconstructive surgery can feel liberating, yet at times, it can haunt you with the scars left behind. When there are little to no resources given, it can be difficult and daunting to seek them out. In the meantime, you are left with uncomfortable feelings about your body, your sexuality shifts, you lose your identity as it’s been given to you by the stories we’re told about being a woman and being feminine. All these emotions are valid and real and you’re not alone. You don’t need to apologize for it or make excuses. I do ask you to acknowledge the emotions. Understand where they’re coming from and what circumstances are triggering it.
It is a gift to move freely about the world in a body we can thrive in where we feel loved, and supported not only by others but by ourselves!
I would be honored to become a part of your support team as you navigate the changing landscape of your body and help you identify your advantages to not only survive the diagnosis but to thrive through it.