I’m at my bi-annual dental exam in a state of panic. My breathing is getting heavier, my heartbeat is quickening, and my stomach feels like it’s trying to sink to my feet. All I can think about is how quickly I want to get out of that office and into the sanctuary of my minivan.
My panic grows worse when the dentist’s tool lingers on my back molar. He frowns and pokes around. Then he casually pronounces, “Looks like you have a cavity back here. We’ll get it taken care of in a few weeks.” He smiles and then breezes out of the room, on to his next patient.
I try to maintain an air of normalcy, smiling politely at the hygienist and accepting the complimentary toothbrush and floss she offers. As soon as I slide into the driver’s seat of my van, tears spring in my eyes and then trickle down my cheeks.
This is one of the things medical trauma does to you. It takes advantage of the most minor situations and ordinary encounters by magnifying, catastrophizing, and spinning out of control.
I’ve had not one but two medically traumatic experiences, one layering on top of the other. The first was when I was sick for a year-and-a-half with symptoms of weight loss, chronic fatigue and hunger, exhaustion, and depression. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a chronic, autoimmune disease, when I was knocking on death’s door.
The second traumatic experience happened twelve years later. I had an inflamed, palpable lump in my right breast, which I promptly brought to the attention of my gynecologist. After a mammogram and ultrasound, the radiologist told me to come back in six months. I decided to get a second opinion, which rendered my breast cancer diagnosis.
Each of these situations were difficult for their own reasons. As a type 1 diabetic, I wear an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor at all times, and I have to count every gram of carbohydrate that I eat. I’m trying to balance my blood sugar every day, all day. With breast cancer, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy when I was 35 and a mom of four.
I’m not done with either disease. There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, and I’m dependent upon insulin, an incredibly expensive hormone that keeps me alive. Even though I’m considered “cancer-free,” I have multiple follow-up appointments to see if I’ll keep my cancer-free status.
Am I grateful that I’m cancer-free, that I have amazing doctors, and my husband’s job provides us with excellent medical insurance? You bet. Not a day goes by when I don’t acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am.
But my thankfulness to be a breast cancer survivor does not eradicate the pain. I lost my breast five years before I’d turn forty. I’m forever tethered to medical devices that keep my blood sugar regulated. I’m always on maintenance mode.
I’m terrified that cancer is around every corner. I’ve worked hard to develop and maintain a post-cancer plan for myself which includes a mostly vegan diet, exercise, adequate sleep, a few supplements, and stress management techniques. But I know the stats, and those percentages haunt me.
I go to every follow-up appointment, where I sometimes slip into a mental and emotional trance in order to protect myself from the trauma. I strip down to a cloth gown and multiple medical professionals pat down my implants to make sure there’s no lumps or bumps that could be indicative of recurrence.
It’s not only the daily duties of staying alive and the anxiety difficulties that I juggle, but also the survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive? How did I manage to only have surgery and not surgery, chemo, and radiation? Every time I hear of another woman being diagnosed, most recently the sister of a dear friend, my heart sinks. I feel guilty for my second-chance at life.
Of course, there’s also the anger. Why is cancer even something women have to deal with? Why did I get double-dinged? Two diseases in a span of twelve years?
Everything looks great on the outside. I’m a busy mom, wife, sister, daughter, neighbor, employee, and friend. My husband and I have been married almost sixteen years. We have a beautiful home, attend a progressive church, and like our jobs.
Even though having a mastectomy is never a piece of cake, my upgraded breasts were rebuilt by a well-known plastic surgeon at an incredible hospital. You wouldn’t know I had cancer unless you looked very closely to see the thin, pink scars.
Despite all of my “blessings,” I’m a mess of emotions. Medical trauma is a jerk. It creeps up and steals. It takes what it wants, when it wants. It relishes in your every doubt, every tear, every inkling of guilt, and every sense of inadequacy.
My friends, family, and social media followers see me as a breast cancer survivor, a warrior, an overcomer who lives with an autoimmune disease but manages to live a full, happy life. Many friends and family members have told me how strong I am.
But the truth is, in the aftermath of cancer, I’m fragile, weak, confused, and tired.
Just when I think I’m gaining some ground, I’ll see or hear something that triggers me. One day I was running errands, and the car in front of me had a pink ribbon sticker with “survivor” printed under it on the back window.
Even if it’s not in me, cancer is around. All of the time.
October is one of the hardest months for me because those damn pink ribbons are everywhere. Our local café even sold breast cancer ribbon shaped bagels! Depending on how I’m feeling that day, I might smile, thankful for the acknowledgement and comradery. But more likely, I inwardly suffocate in post-traumatic stress.
When you’ve had a medically traumatic experience, you are never done with it. Ringing a bell in a treatment facility, tucking away the brace on the top shelf of a closet, or holding a promising medical report in your hands can feel really good in the moment. And of course, those moments deserve honor and celebration.
But the truth is, when you’ve been so close to death or the possibility of death, you realize how truly fragile life is. That every breath is a gift. That even though fear can be the worst of liars, fear is still real and the emotions it creates are justified.
What happened to me was my reality, and I feel like it’s not my duty to bury it and pretend I’m OK. Instead, the healthiest thing I can do is acknowledge the past, accept the present, and remind myself that grief is a cycle, not a linear path with a finish line.