A few weeks ago a well-intentioned reader sent me an article from The Guardian about Victoria Derbyshire, a reporter with the BBC, and her breast cancer treatment story. I immediately recoiled at the image of the veteran reporter holding up two signs, post-surgery:
My first reaction was that this woman didn’t properly understand her diagnosis if she thought a mastectomy permanently rid her of cancer. The more visceral response was one of disconnection. Ms. Derbyshire displayed a manic cheerfulness I have yet to feel. The article describes her as ‘plucky’, and self-possessed’. Her documentation of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation spawned a book called, ‘Dear Cancer, Love Victoria’.
I don’t know that version of breast cancer.
The breast cancer that I know is weeping on the phone to your brother because you don’t want to lose your breast. It’s slinking out of bed and landing on all fours because radiation has fatigued you, but there are twelve more sessions to go and you can’t miss a single one. It’s wondering if your life matters, and to whom? And what, exactly, has all this amounted to?
Pieces of you removed, and then again, and maybe more.
It’s wishing your mom could come take care of you, even though you are in your 40’s and she died over a decade ago. It’s being afraid before doctor visits but getting dressed, being on time, and going home alone to process the next steps. It’s trying to comfort yourself in the middle of the night, or even mid-day. It’s wondering about every ache and pain. Is this normal, or the end of things?
It’s marveling at the squandered time, all the wrong turns. It’s a cattle prod to your unfinished business.
It’s people staring so obtrusively at your bald head you couldn’t shop in peace. It’s being barely able to look in the mirror when your eyelashes and eyebrows fell out. It’s friends who became unavailable, and then disappeared.
It’s relying on your elderly father, hoping you outlive him, and wondering who might help you once he is gone. It’s meeting a man you like and having to tell him about your uncertain health picture, then worrying about getting undressed with all the scars.
I don’t have any signs for what I feel, even the good. It’s vast and variable. Moments of joy quickly turn to hot tears. There is no good news without the reminder that it could be short-lived.
Grief is the price we pay for love.
Queen Elizabeth II
I know the version of breast cancer that is closer to grief. Things lost, never to be found again. Pieces of you removed, and then again, and maybe more. Teaching yourself to accept you may run out of time before finding a loving partnership, and never knowing how to make that feel okay. Being so sorry you have to keep telling your family difficult news.
I understand why grief repels, even in ourselves. What is one to do with untouchable sadness?
People want you to unshackle yourself from grief. Soothe them with your rejection of sadness. The best I have learned to do is to set mine aside for a time, put my face in the sun.
Grief is a package placed by the door. I have to take it home at the end of the night, but I can mingle and chat at the party unencumbered.
Ms. Derbyshire has a life very different from mine. A loving husband to assure her the removal of a breast won’t change his feelings, children to attend to and make decisions for. That’s the point though, this disease is hardly one size fits all.
Our diagnoses and how we live with them are personal, and many of us have complicated relationships with our cancer. It spurs us forward to live our fullest life, and wounds us with its consequences.
I endeavor to cultivate a sober affection for the future. To be wise, and hold on loosely. To accept the limitations with grace.
What I want is to love my life wildly, and with abandon.
But, we all know that’s a recipe for heartbreak.