About 18 months ago, I was labeled a ‘Breast Cancer Survivor’. The label was gifted to me, at the time, by my Specialist surgeon in an encouraging, ‘Go you! Didn’t we do well?’ kind of tone. As I recall, we high-fived each other. The thing was though, the label seemed far too dramatic for what I had experienced, and even accepting it – let alone wearing it – felt inappropriate. There were, I felt, lots of amazingly courageous women that were so much more deserving of the badge.
Due to the vigilance of a number of unknown (to me) people – radiologists, a panel of Doctors – a routine mammogram had revealed what appeared to be rogue cells. I had no lump, no discharge, and no changes to my breast or nipple; nothing to indicate that anything was amiss. After being recalled, there followed further mammograms, a tissue biopsy and the insertion of wires to perform a ‘hook wire excision’ which ultimately resulted in surgery to remove the offending cancer.
My medical insurance enabled me to bypass the wait-list for a surgery date at the local hospital and so, in a suitably business-like fashion, I scheduled a date mutually agreeable to my Specialist surgeon and my own commitments. Maybe I was in shock, but it was all very matter of fact and let’s-get-on-with-it-like.
I’d be lying if I said it was all a wee walk in the park, but all along I was grateful for the expertise and care of ‘my team’ who made it as tolerable as they possibly could. I recovered relatively quickly, with more intense discomfort than gasping pain. Afterwards I had decisions to make about radiotherapy and preventive medicines but I was spared the need for chemotherapy due to the swift and effective actions of others.
So when the ‘Breast Cancer Survivor’ label was give to me, I struggled to put it on. I felt lucky and incredibly fortunate to have gotten off so lightly, especially compared to several of my Beloveds whose treatments I had witnessed first hand.
And so, life went on. I looked at my scar every morning. Sometimes I’d pause, touch it and reflect. Sometimes a sharp shooting pain would take me to a more ‘Oh yes, remember that surgery?’ place, but for the most part, life went on.
Twice yearly visits to the Specialist and annual mammograms are part of my world for the next five years. Again, for which I am grateful. (I have always been vigilant about having mammograms. BreastScreen Aoteoroa offers free mammograms to eligible women in New Zealand aged between 45 and 69, so why on earth wouldn’t you?)
Earlier this year I had my first annual mammogram, post surgery. What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact that, a year later, waiting for the results would have on me. That realisation that in the blink of an eye, life as I knew it could change – without my knowledge or permission. As it did a year earlier.
Funnily enough, I had unconsciously been putting things on hold – waiting for the conversion of our stables into accommodation, a trip to Italy to celebrate a friends 50th birthday, committing to work opportunities a few months away and attending an overseas conference. Whilst I wasn’t consciously aware of feeling a need to wait, still I did. And that’s so unlike me that, on reflection, the possibility of needing to be free for whatever might come next was obviously somewhere in the back of my mind.
Thankfully I got the all clear. It was only when I asked my Specialist to actually show me the mammogram and radiologist report, so I could read them both with my own eyes (not that they made much sense to me, I hasten to add) that I realised just how much I had been holding my breath. And for how long.
This time, when my Specialist high-fived me (clearly, that’s his thing) and I finished my spontaneous sobbing, I hugged him. As he said, “We are in a relationship Kate, for the next five years” so it kind of felt appropriate!
I’ve decided to pay more loving attention to my scar. To see it as a badge of honour – much like Mothers refer to the stretch marks on their belly as evidence of something wonderful.
Owning all of the pieces that make us who we are, at midlife and beyond, is part of the ripening process. So yes, today I am a Breast Cancer Survivor. That’s one of my labels and I wear it with pride (just quietly).
Your turn, dear Ripenists. Which labels do you wear with pride?