Barb thought that she should be elated that her breast cancer treatment was completed. Her surgery was four months ago, the radiation finished two weeks ago, and she didn’t need chemotherapy. Her skin did not burn, her cosmetic results were excellent, and she didn’t lose her hair. She arrived for her first post-treatment appointment at my office and couldn’t figure out why she was having trouble “keeping it together”. She had taken her diagnosis as a trooper, barely shedding a tear. And here she was back in my office, where this journey began, and she was falling apart.
She could be any patient after any prescribed course of treatment that has just hit the next bump in the road of cancer.
I have been caring for women and men with breast cancer for more than 20 years and have come to recognize this place I call “The Cliff.” Everyone who goes through the treatment of breast cancer, or any cancer for that matter, arrives at this place when the physical treatment of his or her cancer is complete.
I define the cliff as that place that my breast cancer patients’ reach anywhere from two weeks to two months after their treatment has finished. It is when fear sets in and rational thinking flies out the window. Somehow being on treatment is like a security blanket since you are actually doing something to “treat” the cancer. Suddenly you are done and nothing in your life is recognizable. The life you had before the diagnosis of breast cancer is gone and your new life is plagued with fear. Most of the time you can keep your game face on, but in reality you are standing at the edge of the cliff scared that you are about to free fall to a place that you is unknown.
I know that the cliff is coming for each of my patients and I specifically schedule an appointment two weeks to two months after their last treatment whether that treatment is surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. I use the appointment to empower them to embrace the cliff. The cliff can be daunting. It’s a long way down to the ground–that is, if you are even brave enough to look over the edge. There are three options for those with cancer who find themselves on the cliff, looking out toward their unknown future.
Option 1- Remain paralyzed with FEAR on the edge of the cliff, hanging on for dear life.
Fear is really False Evidence Appearing Real. It is our mind getting the best of us. The relentless tickertape of the brain is replaying every decision: Should I have had a mastectomy? Should I have had whole breast radiation therapy? Maybe chemotherapy would have benefited me…….. Is my cancer coming back? How will they find it if it does? Am I going to see my children grow up?
Option 2-Free fall to the ground, landing wherever you land, smacking your head as you hit.
Surrendering to the cancer and believing that no matter what you do you are doomed creates a sense of hopeless, helplessness, and despair that others can palpate when you walk in to the room. (Like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.)
Option 3- Strap on a pair of wings and learn to fly. It is by far the best choice as I see it. You may not know how to fly initially, but if you choose to don the wings you will feel the wind beneath them as you take flight and soar from the cliff to the new life that is being created after cancer.
Option 3 requirements- first and foremost is releasing the fear. Fear paralyzes our lives and robs us of our most precious commodity, our joy. When you have done all that you can to treat your cancer, it’s time to let go of the fear of it coming back and begin to be present in the moment for that moment is truly all that any one of us is guaranteed. Spending your days worrying about recurrence doesn’t make it not happen; it simply robs you of joy. We cannot go back and change the past and we cannot predict our future but ruminating and worrying just deprives us of the gift of the present!
Cancer can be a gift if you chose to see it as such. Cancer gives you perspective. The trivial things that previously pushed your buttons suddenly aren’t so important. Your priorities realign and you have to make yourself the most important person in your life so that you can care for those you love. We all have baggage in our lives and cancer you the opportunity to clear the clutter that you have been holding on to for way too long. You need to look deep inside and find your passion. Then you can allow it to blossom and make your heart sing. Creating a purpose-driven life allows you to feel meaning in all that you do. Some times it takes perseverance to create the changes to truly heal. In the end, it is all about creating joy in every day and finding peace in your heart. Live the life that you deserve.
So let’s get back to Barbara’s story. After her exam and the reassurance that she had completed her prescribed breast cancer treatments, we got down to the business of healing. I had to remind her that although she was fortunate to not need chemotherapy or to lose her breast, she still needed to allow herself to “heal”. She was experiencing a bit of survivor’s guilt as she had met so many women and men on her treatment journey who had a much more tumultuous course of treatment. She was also keenly aware that her life had been changed with the diagnosis of cancer, and although her physical appearance had not changed, she was a different person from her experience. Others around her assumed that she would go back to “normal”. But Barb’s new normal is different, and can be amazing if she is able to find the gifts that her diagnosis had brought her.
She had not used her healing certificates (five one-hour individual sessions provided by The Healing Consciousness Foundation- www.hcfbucks.org – to women and men treated by Comprehensive Breast Care Surgeons of Holy Redeemer. www.comprehensivebreastcare.com) because she thought that her cancer was not “bad enough” to deserve them.
- Use her healing certificates with integrative practitioners
- Pack her pre-cancer baggage and get rid of it!
- Embrace forgiveness. We forgive for ourselves—not for others—and then let it go.
- Become the number one priority in her new life centered on self
- Rid her life of “energy vampires”
- Love herself exactly as she is at this moment
- Realize that self love will attract more love and joy
- Love and be loved!
Then, and only then, can she and all breast cancer survivors become THRIVERS!
Published in the January edition of the Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine January Edition page 6.