In the days that followed my first breast cancer diagnosis, I spent a lot of time in the space between panicking and reflecting. One conversation haunted me, one a friend and I had prior to my diagnosis. She’d confessed that her mom wasn’t taking very good care of herself, including not going for her annual gyno appointment and getting a mammogram. My friend said it wouldn’t surprise her one bit if her mom ended up with breast cancer. Then the convo took a serious turn. My friend, who, like me, tends to be crunchy and prefers au natural over toxins, went on a rampage about how chemotherapy is ridiculous. She then said something I’ll never forget: “If I had cancer, there’s no way I would put those chemo chemicals into my body. I’d just wait and see what happened.”
Well, I became part of the one in eight women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and I had a choice to make. Yes, chemo was on the table, as was radiation, hormone blockers, immunotherapy, and surgery. I had to decide between a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation or a mastectomy. These are choices a woman never wants to have to make, but there I was. Despite being a fairly “you do you” and “mind your own beeswax” kind of person, I kept thinking about the conversation I’d had with my friend about chemo.
My first breast cancer diagnosis was almost four years ago, and I opted for a mastectomy only. It turned out that chemo, radiation, and other treatments weren’t recommended for my early cancer stage and because I had a mastectomy. As the months and then years passed, I was finally getting comfortable as a breast cancer survivor when I found a mass in my chest wall. The cancer was back.
I went right back down into the whirlwind of ultrasounds, then other scans, lab work, consultations, research, and surgeries. I had two procedures in a three-week time span, thankfully rendering me free from my cancer for a second time. However, because a breast cancer recurrence can be a real jerk, I began exploring my options. This time, my doctors and I decided that it was best to receive chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.
I’ve made this choice carefully. First, I wanted to hear what the experts, my doctors, had to say. They are experienced and well-educated, and I trust their thoughts. Second, I’m a mother of four, and just like the first time I battled cancer, this time I considered what’s best for my family. I wanted to put forth my best efforts to kick cancer to the curb — again — rather than wait and see. Finally, I only felt peace about the decision to pursue treatment. My gut instinct told me that I needed to do this.
I don’t explain this to each person who questions my decision to pursue post-op treatments, because that would be absolutely exhausting. Plus, when you over-explain yourself, you tend to receive more pushback, questions, and doubts. The last thing I need is more judgement about my body and my cancer journey.
But I’m going to go ahead, and this one time, indulge those who render a verdict on my decision to proceed with chemo, immunotherapy, and radiation. I’m certain that by sharing some insight into my journey, I’ll help another breast cancer fighter.
The only person who should have permission to critique the decision of the patient is the patient. Yup, you read that correctly. Because what you would do in my situation is irrelevant. In fact, if you choose to share with me what you think you’d do if you were battling cancer for the second time, you’re centering yourself into my pain. Having cancer is devastating, confusing, and heartbreaking. By inserting yourself into my journey — via a social media comment, a look, an in-person discussion, or an unreliable blog post you found about eating salad to beat cancer — you are selfish.
I’m well aware that chemo is toxic. Of course chemo is toxic! Isn’t that the point? Chemo’s purpose is to kick the cancer cells to the curb. Now, chemo can’t tell the difference between healthy and normal cells and cancer cells, so chemo also attacks healthy cells. Hello, side effects!
No one wants to lose their hair, deal with constant dry mouth, lose their appetite, battle nausea or epic bowel explosions, walk around with blurry vision, feel dizzy, or a hundred other issues that can crop up during chemotherapy — but it’s a package deal. Chemo does what it does, and I don’t know any cancer patients who have chosen it haphazardly or casually.
The point is, if you know someone who is going through a hard time — be it cancer, another medical diagnosis, or a difficult life circumstance — your best bet is to first stop expressing what you’d do if you were in their situation. You really have no clue. Consider yourself lucky that you aren’t in their shoes. Instead of stepping up to some sort of invisible podium to proclaim your unsolicited opinion, share a bit of truth with your loved one. Let them know you are holding space for their feelings. It’s okay to tell them, “Wow, this sucks.” Please, please don’t say that God has a purpose for our pain or that we need to just need to “stay positive” and “get well soon.”
Ask the person what they need. Is it a listening ear? A cup of coffee? A ride to treatment? What can you do to fully support them in the decision they’ve carefully made? Whatever they say, do it. Don’t make this an opportunity to then judge their needs. While we’re talking about helping out, please don’t say, “Just let me know if you need anything.” Trust me that none of us want to bother you with our mountain of problems. We know that you’re busy, too.
I know that the current culture begs us to take a stand on everything from “who wore it best” to a political party, and trust me that I’m among the very opinionated and loud-mouthed. However, the only stand you need to take when someone you love is facing a medical crisis or any other life difficult, is to stand beside them and their decisions.