My Breast Cancer: Reflections Sixteen Years After Diagnosis
By Leah Meyer
As a social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Sandy often works with young adults who receive potentially life-threatening diagnoses. “I think it’s absolutely jarring”, she reflects on the experience, though not solely in her capacity as a provider. Sandy was diagnosed, herself, with bilateral breast cancer when she was 35.
That first year included bilateral mastectomies, two different kinds of chemotherapy, and radiation. Then followed 15 years of hormonal therapy, so “technically”, she states, “I didn’t end treatment until a little more than a year ago.” Though cancer doesn’t affect her day to day existence anymore, it has certainly not disappeared from her life. She refers to it, wryly, as “the gift that keeps on giving.” She still sees the oncologist every year and waits anxiously for the results of her annual blood tests, and her history as a cancer survivor has forever shifted her self-perception and the way that others perceive of her.
When reflecting on her own treatment, Sandy thinks of the work she does with people in recovery from addiction, citing the value of the “one day at a time” philosophy prominent in 12-step treatment models. “I really took my cancer diagnosis and took life a day at a time…I think I was already living that way in part because of the work that I did,” she recalls, but cancer made this way of life even more pressing. Early in her diagnosis, soon after completing the most aggressive stage of her treatment, she remembers that she stopped saving in her 401K. “In part”, she says, “because you wonder, am I gonna be around for retirement?” She wanted to spend her money, to go on fun trips and do the things she had always dreamed of doing. Nowadays, with the fear of recurrence less of a constant in her mind, she has shifted her perspective slightly. “I have to make plans for tomorrow, but I have to live in today.”
And so it comes back around, her experience in return informing her work. “I think it’s actually helped me be a better social work provider because I know both sides...you know what it’s like.” She urges providers not to make assumptions about patients and their priorities, as she herself experienced when preparing for her own double mastectomy. Sandy, who is a lesbian and an accomplished athlete, recalls that one of her doctors made a comment on how the surgery would give her the “athletic body” that she had always wanted. “That was what I wanted? No,” she corrects, “I’d rather have my boobs.”
Some of the memorable lessons Sandy holds close required a different kind of strength from her usual persistence and fighter’s attitude. As an example, she remembers attempting to tackle a strenuous ropes course as part of an Outward Bound community building activity with her breast cancer support group while in the midst of treatment. Always one to try the hardest route, she fell her first time through, but she got up and tried again, this time taking a gentler approach. “Sometimes the easier way is the better way,” she realized, and she has carried this lesson forward.
She has found the humor in her experiences too, believing that “you can do stand-up comedy about some of the things” that cancer brings along, telling the story of a prosthetic breasts mishap on the golfing range. And there’s always new material. You have to keep laughing.
As for advice to others navigating similar health challenges, Sandy says “don’t let it stop you.” She acknowledges that you may have to “accommodate” the cancer, but you can (and must) keep going. “You can have aggressive cancer and aggressive treatment and still get better,” she reminds us. Also, she encourages people undergoing treatment to identify what kind of support is helpful and to seek it out. Personally, she finds the hushed, knowing prompts of “how ARE you?” annoying, but knows that some people like to be asked. “Whatever works for you, teach your friends,” she urges, “find community.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “try to celebrate each day.” Some days, Sandy remembers, “I was miserable, I was sick as a dog. But I still tried to put good things in each day no matter how crappy I felt, and that made it easier to get through.”
Dr. Annie Brewster, a Boston internist and founder of the Health Story Collaborative. Leah Meyer is an intern with Health Story Collaborative and a student at Yale College.