A message from Christine:
On January 11, 2011, at 1PM, I got a call from my doctor that gave me an all-access, all-hours pass into the club that no one wants to be in. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard the same words I did that day: “I am sorry to have to give you this news. Your biopsy was positive. You have breast cancer.” I have breast cancer. I have breast cancer? What?! Are you freaking serious?!?! My brain began to buzz with the immense word cancer… cancercancercancercancercancercancercancercancercancercancercancercancer.
In that tiny slice of time, in that infinitesimal moment in the 54-year-long science experiment known as my life, for the first time ever, I experienced paralyzing, gut-wrenching, sucker-punch, drop-me-to-my knees fear, literally unable to draw oxygen into my lungs. It was several minutes before I could feel anything but utter panic…and when that finally subsided, I began to weep. Out loud and in living color. Mike had just left to run errands, and once I thought I had composed myself enough to speak, I called him…but when I heard his voice, my throat closed again and I could get nothing more than a few choked sobs out.
And so it began.
Once the initial shock wore off, I started making The Calls. I know you know what I’m talking about—calls to everyone that matters in our known universe to give notice that life has just changed. Forever. If you knew me, you’d know that I do not like to talk on the telephone, especially since all I have is a cell phone, and it gets hot after a few minutes, and I hate that. The second-of-all was that I was already, with less than a week of being diagnosed with breast cancer under my belt, emotionally spent from saying the same things over and over.
I started processing in the only way I know how. For me, that means researching and reading and asking questions, and always, always, writing: I started a little blog for those closest to me, My Body is Not a Battlefield, and shared not only appointments, but pictures, thoughts, and experiences, as I made my way through treatment.
I remember being spectacularly overwhelmed with all of the thoughts, crazy and sane, banging around in my brain, and trying to perform some kind of a sort-out, and jeez Louise, there is a lot of freaking information that needs to be relayed to a lot of people, and a lot of stuff to figure out, and where do I start? Should I get a good planner set up so I can organize all of my doctor appointments and papers? Will I lose my job from being off work too much and end up living in a tepee in the woods? Will I be able to work and still do my treatments? Am I saying too much to people that don’t know me very well? Will I lose my hair, and if I do, can I please tell everyone that I love that I do not want them to think they all hafta shave their heads so I’m not so goofy-looking all by myself? What does this mean? What does that stand for? What does that mean? Will my insurance cover this?
In those first weeks of waiting and wondering, I wasn’t able to avoid the scenarios that I played and replayed in my mind over what might happen. I experienced the full intensity of human emotion, and not just the horrible, gut-twisting ones. So many people quietly moved in to stand at my side, and I experienced the enormous blessing of knowing just how much I am loved, and by whom, while I was still around to appreciate it.
One woman-friend told me, “Wrap yourself in the armor of love and take courage,” and with that mantra inscribed on my heart, I was able to face many a difficult day. Another reminded me that a burden shared is a burden divided, and yet another told me she would make me a turban if I lost my hair. I wondered: Did they have someone reach out to them the way they did to me? I swore that I would do the same someday, and that I would never forget their grace and kindness.
So many reminded me to laugh, to take deep breaths, to decide how I wanted to move forward. Another suggested I write my own Cancer Rules for Friends and Family. I never did that, but the idea made me smile. (And still seems like a great idea. Christine’s Rule Number One: When you are talking to me, your friend who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, do not tell me stories about people who died of cancer. Argh! And I am telling you, that happens. A lot.)
Christine and pup atop the dunes.
The best laugh in those early days was a tee shirt one woman was wearing at a fundraising event, upon which she had written, “Of course they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me!” I find such beauty in her ability to create humor in something I know to be a painful and often terrifying place.
I made one huge decision: My body is not a battlefield. This battlefield idea is a metaphor with great power for a great many people, and I respect that, but for me, as a lover and a peacemaker, I cannot wrap myself around the idea that I am waging war against myself, in my very own body.
This thing that grew inside me came from within me…it was not an outside invader, it was my very own cells and it was giving me clues that I needed to follow to their source. And so I did. I asked questions of my conventional medical team, well-respected oncologists and nurses to a fault, about diet and exercise and the mind-body connections to help me deal with my treatment and diagnosis.
I was answered with little more than quizzical expressions. (Until I found the clinic that is now my home. No more quizzical expressions!) These were specialists with years of training and experience, including oncology nurses and dietitians, people whose job it is to know the biology of cancer, and they, for the most part, thought I was just a little too serious in this line of questioning.
Please do not misunderstand any of what I just wrote as lack of respect for the men and women who have dedicated their lives to doctoring cancer patients. I love conventional medicine. It is the foundation of my treatment plan, designed by me and my medical team.
I trust that the day is coming in which conventional medicine will automatically include the aspects that I have also woven into my treatment plan without a patient being required to demand it as I have. Contemporary scientific inquiry is showing us the way: There is more to the eradication of breast cancer than just aiming big guns at it. (But I like big guns too.)
Onward and upward. Tears cried, fear faced squarely, and with all of these thoughts swirling in my mind, I continued to learn as much as I could about this thing that was happening in my body. I decided to figure out how to live a statistically longer life, how to give myself every shot in the world of being an old lady, and, my friends, not just any old lady, but a truly joyful old broad who can’t wait for whatever is gonna happen next because she knows it’s gonna be absolutely amazing.
Bit by bit I learned new things about breast cancer, ways to make sure that I never have to do this again, ways to cope with the emotional upheaval that had just plopped itself down right-smack in the middle of my life.
I committed myself to research, making sure to pay attention to information that was backed up by good science. I read, and I read, and I read some more. I took notes. I asked questions. I listened to women who spoke from their experience. I began to change my life in amazing ways I never could have even dreamed just months before.
Ultimate Survivorship is my opportunity—literally a step-by-step plan—to give as many women as possible the head start I wasn’t given as I struck out on the single most challenging and confusing journey of my life – as a breast cancer survivor: a journey that began the moment I heard the terrifying news.
There are so many things we have no control over as we walk this path, but there are far more that we do, and I would like to share with you the things that I have learned. The words I am putting on these pages are part of what I can do to pay it forward, to honor the grace and kindness I have been shown, and continue to be shown to this very day.
This is your journey, and I fervently hope that it begins in earnest, and with joyful intention, today. It’s time to feed your mind, embrace and fuel your body, and nurture your spirit.
Peace to you, my dear sisters. I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s get started!
All photos courtesy of Christine, except main header image by Flickr user matryosha, used under Creative Commons.