“A” is for Anxiety
Here’s the truth: the anxiety starts really early, well before you are even diagnosed. It starts when you get the follow up letter after a routine mammogram. Before that moment you’ve never given your “routine” mammogram another thought. “It was recommended that additional mammographic views and possible breast ultrasound be performed.” The letter doesn’t seem to be too anxious, but you certainly are. Then your anxiety ratchets up when you go back to the clinic and while you wait for the doctor who is looking at your mammogram. When she doesn’t crack a joke with you, but rather looks so earnest and concerned about a mass that isn’t a shadow but an actual mass, the jig is up. Anxiety is often triggered by the anticipation of future events and all you can anticipate are bad things.
“G” is for Guilt
You get the point. You have been diagnosed with a horrible, possibly deadly, disease. You will go through a wretched regimen of treatment and your body will be (temporarily) wrecked as you do. The embodiment of your femininity, the breast, is the treacherous villain in this drama and YOU are the one who feels guilty. How can this be?
Well, this must have been my fault, right? Looking at that list I tend to focus on the things that were in my control – weight, birth control pills, exercise, child-bearing, breast-feeding. Of course I must have done something wrong to cause this and all I can feel is guilty. With the passage of time you realize this guilt is almost irrational. But that is not what it feels like in the moment. I think that is because not only do you feel guilty that you have this disease that you might have been able to prevent (not true, but….) you also start to feel guilty because of what this is doing to the people around you.
“H” is for Hair
The term “bad hair day” was invented for women. Hair has occupied an inflated place in our lives since we were little girls, out of all proportion to so much other stuff and certainly out of all proportion to what preoccupies men (even sex? YES!). Growing up is hair more important than breasts? I would say yes, though some may argue they are on a par with each other. How many hours in your life have you spent on your hair—cutting, setting, blow drying, straightening, curling, crying? Well to braids, bangs & barrettes add bald! If you have chemotherapy your hair is almost sure to go. Now in the grand scheme of things this may not be such a big deal. Kill the cancer lose the hair. That doesn’t sound like a bad tradeoff to the rational mind. But when have we ever been rational about hair? It is ok. You are allowed to be irrational about this one because the hair thing is a BIG DEAL.
“S” is for Sex
Cancerland is a place where, as the late Christopher Hitchens put it “there seems to be almost no talk of sex”. In the case of breast cancer he was right. Now I don’t want to get all cancer competitive on you but the discussion of prostrate cancer is often accompanied by concerns about its impact on a man’s sex life. With breast cancer, if there is any discussion at all, it is likely to be if you are of childbearing age and it is more likely to be about fertility than it is about sexuality. Your sex life doesn’t come up much at all.