In Part 1 of my breast cancer story I tackled a lot of factual information about my diagnosis: finding a lump (which wasn’t actually the cancerous tumour), my mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, getting the news, telling the girls, and making plans for treatment.
Because the question I get asked the most often is actually, “How are you doing?”, in this post I’m going to talk a bit more about how I’m feeling, which is as okay as someone with a promising cancer diagnosis can be. I think. Physically the cancer is causing no symptoms, though knowing I have cancer is certainly causing some physical tension and triggering many emotions.
A couple of recurring feelings:
Guilt: Did I somehow cause it? Or is this just the price I pay for living a pretty charmed life, with most of my dreams coming true by the age of 43? (I can’t be done yet; I still need to visit Ireland, host a national talk/lifestyle show and meet my grandchildren.)
Fear: Sure, things sound positive right now, but what if…? I also have a fear of surgery, which I think is partly justified. When I was in university, my mom had surgery for a broken wrist, and when she woke up she was still paralyzed by the muscle relaxant administered by the anesthesiologist and had to be put on a ventilator. It turns out she has a pseudocholinesterase deficiency, which is hereditary, and after being tested I found out I have it too. (My girls do not.) Now that we know this, anesthesiologists can work around it, and I’ve been told the drugs that could cause us issues aren’t even that commonly used anymore but it’s still a little paranoia I have. My surgeon impressed me though, because before my initial appointment with him he had already consulted with the anesthesiologist to ease my mind. (Note: this deficiency also puts me at risk of sudden cardiac death from cocaine use. I should be safe there.)
Here are answers to other variations on the “How are you?” question:
How are you sleeping?
Not so well. I’ve always been someone who prioritized my eight hours each night, but that said, I’ve never fallen asleep easily, and once I wake up it always takes me a while to fall back asleep, two issues which of course are way worse right now.
My family doctor offered me a prescription for Lorazepam (Ativan), but also warned me that it can become addictive and I should use it sparingly, so I have only taken it once – and I definitely want one before my MRI on Wednesday.
I know I should turn off screens well before bed, but Netflix actually helps me doze off so you do what you gotta do. (Or “needs must” as they say in my British novels.) I also try to have a bath or hot tub each evening, and a friend gave me a bath bomb enticingly named “Snooze Bomb” which I tried the other night and actually slept pretty well. Not sure if there’s an actual connection or not but I’ll take it!
Are you eating okay?
Well, that depends what you mean by okay – my diet has never been great, which of course I am overanalyzing as it’s pretty much one of the only risk factors I have for any health issues! (I’m going to talk about risk factors, signs, etc., in a future post.) Strangely enough, I have been managing to eat meals and some snacks, even while waiting for biopsy results and on the day of my diagnosis, which is particularly surprising to me as my stomach is very impacted by my emotions. I never even eat on the day of a TV segment until it’s over, which isn’t bad now that I’m working with a morning show, but there have been times in the past that I haven’t eaten anything until after 2 p.m. because I was too nervous!
Because sleep isn’t great, I have cut back on Diet Coke too – but God, don’t I deserve some treats as I go through this??
Do you think you should be working?
The distraction of work and support of my colleagues are keeping me going right now. The afternoon of my diagnosis I asked my mom, “Do I go to work tomorrow? Do you do that the day after you’re diagnosed with cancer?”, and her thought was that it would be good for the girls to see that normal life could continue for the time being. Even for myself, I know it felt strangely comforting to pack my lunch, lay out my clothes and keep routine. While the days spent at school with kids fly by, I admit that I found the PA Day much harder when the students weren’t there so I think the situation for each person would be different depending on the circumstances of their employment.
It’s certainly not that I’m so career driven that I can’t possibly step back. I mean, I’m a driven person, but I am well aware that we are all replaceable at work and the classroom is no exception. It’s more that I believe a couple extra weeks of routine are good for me and my family.
I should also note that I feel totally able to continue doing my job well (or as well as I ever did haha), partly because I have a partner and she’s fantastic, but if I thought the kids’ learning was being compromised because I was off my game I’d know it was time to start my leave…which will come soon enough, especially since there will be a pre-surgery quarantine period.
I will say I had a little twinge last week: after leaving early for my appointment with the surgeon on Tuesday, I returned on Wednesday and one particularly active little guy came up to me and said, “Mrs. Winn – don’t leave again!” So sweet, but also a bit of a hit to the gut.
This must be so scary/difficult/overwhelming…how are you staying positive?
Well the truth is, I’m not always.
I’m currently rereading Amy Robach’s cancer memoir, since when I first read it I was blissfully ignorant to the possibility that her story could end up being mine, and she talks a lot about her emotional reaction to her diagnosis. I have been quite different, but I wonder if that’s in part because of her (sharing her story and now appearing healthy and happy on GMA every day) and all those survivors like her who have helped temper my emotions with hope. I have certainly cried, but more often it’s just tears popping into my eyes at random times or getting choked up while talking about it – there have only been a couple of full out sobbing ugly cry moments (the bath seems to be my place for that).
The morning after posting part 1 of my story, I brought my phone to bed and read through all of the comments with Eva beside me…and of course the tears started flowing. (Thank you for each and every one of those messages.) Later when I was on my way out the door to school Eva stopped me and said, “No more crying today,” and I explained to her that the tears from earlier weren’t actually because I felt sad, but because I felt overwhelmed by all of the love.
In terms of being positive, I don’t feel like I’m a Pollyanna or that I’m sweeping anything under the rug, but I figure as long as my appointments are lined up and I’m following doctors’ orders, why not pretend the cancer doesn’t exist for a few blessed minutes (or even hours) at a time?
One thing that’s also helping me: staying the f&*$ away from Google. I have been trying to search relevant things one step at a time (e.g., “questions to ask breast cancer surgeon”) and avoid any searches that could send me down the rabbit hole of worst case scenarios. I’m also sticking with reputable medical sites from the government or other credible sources (Susan G. Komen Foundation, etc.)
One follower kindly suggested a Facebook group offering breast cancer support, and while I checked it out, I’m just not ready to read about other people’s questions and complications. I need to filter the information to protect myself right now, but no doubt at some point that will be helpful for me.
I’m also watching the other media I consume, for example my husband and I had started watching the series Hannibal, and while usually I’m cool with violent criminal activity on TV, this show is particularly gory and we also got stuck on an episode where the criminal had a tumour and another recurring character was delving into a cancer diagnosis and….just…no. Instead we are watching The Office, which we have never seen, and which has more than enough episodes to keep us going for quite a while.
Another positive: through my employee benefits, I have access to a service called CAREpath Cancer Navigation System, where I have been set up with an oncology nurse to help me process information, come up with questions for my health care providers, make decisions about treatment, etc. I’ve spoken to my case manager, Lisa, once on the phone and a couple of times over email already and she has been incredibly helpful.
Are you sure you want to post all this publicly?
Yep, for now. I’m sure there are cancer survivors out there who know way more than I do, and can foresee that I won’t be in the mood to write – or necessarily want to share the details – at every phase in this journey but right now it’s good for me and I have to hope it’s good for somebody else too. I’m also trying carefully to ensure that it’s my story I’m sharing – I gave my husband approval of the paragraph about him in the last post, and I continue to confirm with the girls before mentioning them.
What can I do to help?
I want to preface this by saying I am *NOT* hinting that any of you should do any of these things for me – I just want my posts to be helpful to a broader readership, and if you know someone going through anything similar, they may appreciate the same things I do. Or they might not!
I love texts and emails. As an introvert (no, really I am – despite the fact that I am opening myself up completely here on the safety of my site) I always prefer written communication to talking, but in this situation it also helps me to keep my composure as I read and respond, and gives me the freedom to do so on my own time. Other than staff whom I see in person on a daily basis, I have probably only had voice conversations about my diagnosis with four or five people. I know everyone isn’t like me – some people want to say their thoughts out loud and not write them – and I’ve found voice notes to be really neat for that. A couple of people sent me voice notes through Instagram messages and it was great to actually be able to hear them as they communicated their support.
If you’re at all close to the person who’s going through a hard time, don’t leave it at one message either – you’re not bugging as long as you’re not asking a barrage of questions that require a reply. Every single time I get a message of support (even from someone I’ve already heard from) it gives me a boost right in that moment, and there’s a cumulative effect as well that moves me forward.
COVID makes in-person support tricky, but one of my BFFs suggested a COVID-safe outdoor visit, and three of us got together for a walk on a nearby trail. It was nice to talk about this, and it was nice to talk about anything but this.
I’ve also received a few lovely care packages with items like sweet treats, flowers, my favourite drink and a scented candle, and my parents have brought us meals, but you certainly don’t have to spend any money to show your love and support for someone.
Now, to close with a status update: MRI on Wednesday (if you like to get specific with your prayers, we’re hoping for nothing new to see on it) and then I meet with the surgeon again on Friday to go over the results and decide on next steps. If you want to follow along with updates in between blog posts, I’ll be sharing on Facebook and Instagram.