Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re like most patients, you’ve had a mammogram or other diagnostic test that has revealed something amiss. Those tests were likely followed by a breast biopsy and the news you never wanted to hear. And it sucks. There, I said it. It sucks. It’s completely okay to sit in the suckiness of it all for a bit. Your life has been turned on its head.
It's scary, terrifying actually, because you’re looking at a huge unknown filled with the unspeakable. And my friends, you’re going to have to face it down. But not now. Now, you can cry and eat as much chocolate as you want. However, there is one thing that you should not do under any circumstances at this point in your life.
Do not go on the Internet. I mean it. Stop searching right now, because this will only fuel the fear, anxiety, and sadness you’re already experiencing. And so much of the information that’s out there is utter crap. I know the urge to research is strong, but for right now, trust me, the Internet isn’t your friend or your doctor.
Instead of trolling around online, ask your doctor or nurse navigator for resources and support groups to help you process your diagnosis in a reasonable way. I’ll also list several websites below that I found helpful as I went through treatment. (Don’t scroll down now, we'll get there in good time.)
As you digest this news, you may be thinking: how am I ever going to tell my kids (if you have them) or friends or family members? I’ll start with the kids since, if you’re a parent, this may be keeping you up at night.
So be honest with them because even though you’re the patient, your entire family will experience this disease.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, my children were ages 19, 15, and 10: a freshman in college, a freshman in high school, and a fifth-grader. My husband and I decided that we would tell our three children at the same time when we had all of the relevant information—diagnosis, treatment plan, prognosis—so that we would be on the same page and could deal with the emotions and grief together. It seemed like a logical plan at the time, but for various reasons, it didn’t work out the way we planned it.
Consequently, our daughter felt terribly betrayed and hurt when my husband told her that I had breast cancer when I was one hundred miles away from home at a swim meet with my older son. My plan to share the information all at once, in an effort to protect my children for as long as possible, made things much harder. I know the desire to protect our children is instinctive and strong. But, dear ones, there is no protecting them from this news.
Children know when secrets are being kept. Also, there’s a good chance, if their parents or other trusted adults don’t tell them, they’ll hear it elsewhere. So be honest with them because even though you’re the patient, your entire family will experience this disease.
Here’s the thing: the psychic weight of this diagnosis is so crushing that your typical self can malfunction. You may forget things, get confused, or freeze, unable to process or plan. So, gather your team.
Those words apply equally to how you might share this news with friends and other family members. Upon sharing my diagnosis, I found that most people were kind and supportive, often offering meals or rides for my children to their sports practices, for example. However, much to my shock and dismay, some of my friends weren’t as supportive, regaling me with statements like “I know someone who had breast cancer. She died" or offering me all sorts of “advice” that I neither wanted nor needed. Perhaps, the worst response to my news was no response at all—crickets.
Cancer is frightening and unfortunately, not everyone handles difficult news in sympathetic or supportive ways. I know this is an awful thing to contemplate, but the fact that everyone will not respond the way you want or need them to is the number one thing that survivors I’ve met, known, or spoken with have told me that they wished they’d known from the start. If this happens to you along your journey, you’ll have to decide what’s best for your emotional health and what will bring you peace, whether you want to reach out and try to reconnect with that person or to let the relationship go.
In the first few weeks after your diagnosis, you might think that you’ve got this. You’re an intelligent, independent, capable adult, right? Here’s the thing: the psychic weight of this diagnosis is so crushing that your typical self can malfunction. You may forget things, get confused, or freeze, unable to process or plan. So, gather your team.
Your team may include family members, trusted friends, spouses, partners, but you cannot go through cancer treatment, surgery, and recovery without some peeps to help out. Take a team member with you to your appointments. Ask them to take notes on a phone, laptop, tablet, or on paper about everything the doctors or other health care professionals say.
You’re so much stronger than you know. Be kind to yourself and to the ones who love you.
It’s important to ask questions about the diagnosis, treatment, risks and benefits of the various treatments, and side effects. Ask as many questions as you need until you have fully understood the explanation. And don’t be afraid to follow-up by phone or text if you have a question after your appointment. I also found it helpful to keep a notebook to jot down a question or concern for my doctors whenever they came up in daily life so that at my next appointment, I could ask them.
One final thing that survivors often say to me is that they wished they’d trusted themselves more, especially when they felt something was off or they were uncertain. When I think of all of the times I didn’t listen to my inner voice, I’ve regretted it. If something feels off, don’t stew on it or ignore it or consult WebMD. Talk to your health care team. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll probably sleep better too.
As you set out on this new path—not one you asked to be put on, to be sure—I promise that you will find the courage, strength, and resilience to walk it, one step, one day, one week at a time. You’re so much stronger than you know. Be kind to yourself and to the ones who love you. And know that you’re not alone.
WRITTEN BYChristine Shields Corrigan