I saw a meme the other day that said something like “cancer can take away my body parts but it can’t touch my mind, my heart, or my soul.” Lovely words, heroic even, if you don’t think about them too closely. I thought about them very closely and found I disagreed strongly with the message.
One way to interpret this meme is the superficial positive message of, “I am more than my disease. I am still a real person under the scars and the bald head and the chemo sickness. I am still me in my mind, heart, and soul”.
On that level, I can accept the meme’s message. But when I look at the words as they are written, not searching for a positive hidden meaning, I find myself in total disagreement with them.
I don’t think we can compartmentalize our lives that easily. The physical changes impact the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. It is not just the physical changes that lead to mental and emotional distress. The very process of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease plays havoc with our minds, emotions, and our spirits. We are more than the sum of our physical parts. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits are all intertwined to make up the whole package of our being. Our bodies don’t exist in some separate dimension away from the mental and emotional parts of our being. I do not believe that we come out of the other side of a cancer experience the same person we were when we went in.
Dealing first with the physical changes that cancer brings upon us, they have an enormous impact on the mind, the heart (emotions), and the soul (the very core of our being and our belief system). Breast cancer treatment often strips us of our breast(s), our hair, our fertility, and sometimes our ovaries or even our whole reproductive system. Often times treatment pushes a woman into at least temporary menopause. For others, the menopause is early and is permanent. No matter what kind of treatment is involved, there is physical pain and sickness from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
Our whole body image can change dramatically in only a few months time. Suddenly, all the physical attributes of what makes us female are gone. This plays havoc on our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yes breasts can be reconstructed, hair will grow back, fertility may be regained if we are very young and lucky or if we had the foresight to freeze eggs or embryos in advance of chemotherapy or gynecological surgery.
But breast reconstruction often involves multiple surgeries and for some, the end result is disappointing at best. And a reconstructed breast no longer has any feeling in it, no matter how cosmetically wonderful it may look.
Assisted reproduction techniques are not always successful. Chemotherapy can leave behind a permanent legacy of neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet), hormonal drugs can lead to chronic joint pains, and surgical or chemically induced menopause symptoms can be more severe than natural menopause and are unlikely to be treated with hormonal supplements as these may reignite cancer.
With all these physical “side-effects” of cancer treatment, is it any wonder that many women feel distressed or depressed or highly anxious? When you look in the mirror and don’t even recognize the person you were 6 months earlier, it is bound to affect you mentally and emotionally. If you are in chronic pain and are suffering hot flashes at 30, it tends to change your outlook on life.
As far as cancer not being able to touch your mind, I have one word for that. Chemobrain. It is real, it affects your memory, your concentration, and your ability to communicate effectively. It can feel as though you have had a mini-stroke as you dig through the filing cabinets of your mind to find that elusive everyday word you have used a million times before. Other times the right word is in your brain but a totally random word comes out of your mouth as if your brain and mouth were no longer connected. Then there is the disconcerting habit of losing things – your purse, your keys, your phone – only to find them right in front of you the whole time. So yes, cancer treatment can take away the mind for many of us, at least temporarily.
As far as the heart or the emotions, just the very diagnosis of having a disease that can potentially kill you tends to strike fear and panic into your heart. You wait endlessly for pathology reports and the results of various scans to see if the cancer has spread. You worry about loved ones and how they will cope during treatment, or in the worst case scenario death, particularly if they are young children or aged parents that you normally care for.
Even when the cancer is caught at an early stage and the prognosis is good, most women are still highly anxious about a recurrence or a future diagnosis showing the cancer has spread. Once you have had cancer, you feel your body has betrayed you once and can do so again. Your sense of safety in the world has been irrevocably affected. You have come face to face with your own mortality, realizing you just might not live to a ripe old age. These factors can bring on depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and in some cases, PTSD. So yes, cancer can and usually does attack the heart (emotions) as well as the body.
Finally, your soul or your very essence of being can be adversely affected as your perspective on life changes. Some of the changes may be for the good in that you start to appreciate the people and things around you more as you feel you came close to losing them. But it can also make you more wary of planning for the future, knowing that cancer could re-enter your life at any time.
You suddenly become aware that many women are dying of this disease, women your age and younger, as well as women whose cancers were also detected early and were given an excellent prognosis. The world of cancer seems very random, more like a roll of the dice than like the orderly world of the cancer media which says early detection will keep you safe. You may search for ways to put yourself in control of your cancer by completely changing your diet and lifestyle only to hear about organic vegans who ran triathlons and died of cancer anyway. When you realize that the difference between living and dying of this disease seems to be more a matter of luck than anything else, your previously optimistic view of an orderly controlled world is essentially gone for good.
Perhaps I am presenting an overly pessimistic view due to my personal history of having breast cancer 4 times. It is a rarity in the breast cancer world to have cancer strike 4 times and not spread beyond the breast. I am grateful that I have been spared from Stage 4 cancer multiple times, particularly as I also have a BRCA1 mutation to contend with.
But even “good” recurrences like mine come with a huge emotional and spiritual price tag attached. I am constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for cancer to strike again. It is impossible for me to believe that this time I have “beaten” cancer as it keeps coming back for another round. Even if my breast cancer days are over, the BRCA1 mutation means I am susceptible to other forms of cancer that may be waiting in the wings to strike when I least expect it.
I don’t blame cancer for all the problems in my life. But I would be lying if I said that cancer didn’t have a negative impact on all areas of my life. I don’t believe cancer only took physical body parts away from me. It took much more of a toll on my emotions and spirit that I tried my best to cover up for many years. I am still happy with my life but I miss the wide eyed optimist I used to be. I don’t think she is ever coming back again and that makes my mind, heart, and spirit sad.
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