In this month of breast cancer awareness I will be blogging more than in the following months. This is, after all, what I’ve experienced and what I know best in the cancer world. Even within the breast cancer community each person has their own story, which can vary according to the type of breast cancer, the care team, and personal preferences. Today I start at the beginning, at diagnosis.
A diagnosis is not really one moment, it’s a series of tests, waiting and worry, and then the moment of confirmation.
For me it started with an annual check up where a lump was found by my doctor. I was 46 and because my testing and appointments were off schedule, I had a negative mammogram just 8 1/2 months prior. After waiting a few days I had a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. The Radiologist who spoke with me at the end of the tests said there was not only an area concern in the breast, but also in the lymph nodes and he said I would need to schedule a biopsy. At that point I think I was too numb, or scared to asked questions. Really, though, the look on the radiologists face told me the answer to the unasked questions. I knew I was in trouble. The following week my needle biopsy was scheduled, and being the planner that I am, in the meantime I began researching. I talked to people and looked at bios of both surgeons and oncologists within the group of my nearby clinic/hospital. During the biopsy I was awake and at the end of the procedure asked the doctor if I should be concerned. I had asked for it straight, and she told me straight out, yes. I was told it may be a couple of days for results, and that a nurse would call me. It isn’t like the movies where you get called in to see your personal doctor and you hear the news in person from someone you’ve known for years. The very day after my biopsy I got a call from a nurse, and although details of the testing are starting to fade, I still remember that exact moment..where I was standing and what I was doing. The nurse told me that, as she had heard I suspected, I did in fact have cancer. She explained a little about what the sample from the biopsy told them, and that more testing of it would provide more information. She then talked about setting up appointments for an oncologist, surgeon and a scan to be sure there wasn’t cancer in any other parts of my body. I told the nurse the names of the doctors I wanted appointments with and being prepared with them made me feel as though I had some control in a situation where everything was really out of my control. It was a conversation that was task orientated. In the next week there were tests and appointments, and in between, life.
Telling my children, friends, family and co-workers about my diagnosis was really hard. Those in my life did not have a task at hand to fuel the conversation like the medical professionals did, and the emotions of a cancer patient compare to the world’s largest roller coaster. The responses varied from platitudes, questions, sympathy, expletives and even silence. The emotions of that time in my life is what stands out and remains with me.
So, what so I suggest should you find yourself being told by a loved one that they have cancer? I suggest not responding with a story of some person you know who has had cancer and is doing well. Make the moment about your loved one who has just had their world turned upside down. It’s okay to ask questions and say you’re sorry. It’s also okay to say, “I don’t know what to say.” Above all else, listen. Your loved one may be scared, angry, or in function mode, but what a newly diagnosed person really needs is to know they are not alone.