Denial worked for me for awhile, until the day my Physician's Assistant sat my husband and me down in a conference room to obtain my informed consent for surgery. She showed us photo albums filled with pictures of women who'd undergone different procedures to prepare me for the possibilities of what could happen during my surgery. When I saw the scars of those women who were brave enough to allow themselves to be photographed to help me see and cope with what I confronted, I began the process of taking in what I faced: accepting what my chest would look like after surgery. I remember watching my husband's face as we looked at the photos, gauging his reaction. Praying for a positive outcome, I consented to surgery. I recall fading in and out of consciousness in the recovery room, asking the nurse over and over again if they had to go into my arm. I was terrified that lymphedema would disable my left arm and make the remainder of my life a misery. The fear of loss of function for me was more frightening than the fear of dying. When I was fully cognizant, it made me nauseous to look at the bandages on my chest or to run my hand over my insensate arm.
Much later, when it was time to remove the bandages, I took them off in front of the mirror, trembling and crying when I finally looked at my breast. I have never felt so overwhelmed and so lost as during the time period between my surgery and the start of my radiation. I just couldn't get my feet on solid ground. I have always been a person who has an 'inner well' of strength, but it seemed that my well had finally run dry. I couldn't comfort myself. That was the most frightening thing of all. I had to get a grip! I started to meditate every day. I've always prayed but I prayed differently now, from a perspective of vulnerability that I'd never known. I began to feel peace again and a sense of comfort that if it was my time to cross over, crossing over would not be painful. I found myself almost longing for the peace of it. Then it dawned on me one day that I was sending the universe a mixed message. I didn't want to die. I wanted to live! So, I began to fight! I participated in my first 'Walk for Life', 5/17/2008, with my left arm in a sling and my sister-in-law, also a survivor, at my side. It was a powerful moment for me. When I walked through that arch I felt like I could make it...I would survive.
On my first day of radiation treatment, I sat in the lobby looking at the other unfortunates who had drawn the cancer card. I saw the face of a mother trying not to cry as she watched as her little boy was taken back for another course of brain radiation. My heart broke for her. I felt selfish for my cowardice. When I was called back to the women's waiting room, I had a few minutes to wait so I picked up the journal they kept for patients to write their thoughts. I thought of that mother and her son and I tried to write words of hope for patients who would sit in that waiting room after me. When the attendant came to take me back for my first treatment, I followed her down the hall, glancing at a helmet and mask sitting on a side table ... reminders of the patient with brain cancer who had been treated before me and was now being taken out on a gurney. I remember thinking that nothing I would undergo could be as terrible as that. Still, I shook with fear as I laid down on the table for my first radiation treatment. I couldn't stop trembling. I'm such a shy person and I was nervous at being exposed. I cracked a couple of jokes, trying to make light of it, then it hit me that there was no humor in the situation at all. The whole thing was just too real. It felt like someone sucker-punched me! I started crying. I was so embarrassed, angry with myself for giving in to my fear but too overwhelmed to handle it. Seneca, a wonderful man on my team, held my hand and talked with me until I was calm. He helped me to get through it. I'll never forget him.
From that day forward, my perspective changed. Believe it or not, the remaining days of treatment were very tranquil for me. I began to have a sense of myself again. I focused on praying, meditating and love as I tried to heal so that I would survive. I made up my mind to concentrate on fighting to live the remainder of my life being as true to myself as possible. As soon as I made that decision, God started arranging things for me. I had always wanted to be a writer but could never find the time for it. Suddenly, I was commuting two hours daily for my radiation treatments, with plenty of time to think. Driving to treatment became meditative for me. Ideas for stories started popping in to my head. I bought a little mini recorder and recorded story vignettes during my 33 day commute: those stories later became novels.
I will never forget the day I rang the radiation bell after my last radiation treatment. This inscription was on the card my treatment team gave me:
"Ring this bell, three times well to celebrate this day.
My course is run, my work is done and I'm on my way."
I took the 'Bell inscription' very seriously, I am on my way! Cancer set me back on the path intended for me, it made me pause long enough to take a good hard look at my life and realize what I'd been missing. It helped me find the courage to trust myself, and God, to take chances that feel right for me. That never would have happened if I hadn't been stopped in my tracks by cancer. The 33 roses in the 'radiation bouquet' my husband gave me on my last day of treatment are long dried now, but I look at them every day and remember what matters: I'm alive, I'm loved and I'm able to give love in return. I'm not missing a thing!
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, may God bless you and give you the courage and strength for your battle. When you reach that point where you can accept the reality of your diagnosis, I say face it, take it in and know that you have the strength and courage to conquer it ...in your way. You may be surprised at how profoundly you will change.
About the author: Scarlett Rains (a pseudonym) is the author of a series of historic romance novels. Ms. Rains may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.