Tomorrow I am leaving to go a retreat for younger women with breast cancer at Commonweal. I signed up back in February when I was transitioning from finishing up with radiation treatments to taking tamoxifen. One of the things I was told was that I would experience a down period during this transition. For the month of February, I experienced mild depression which I was able to get through with some great acupuncture treatments.
People don’t realize that when you are living with breast cancer and going through the treatments, you are in survival mode trying to just make it to the next test, to the next doctors’ appointment, to get to the next phase of treatment. It is very intense and you are told when and where to be every step of the way. No one tells you how to be with all of this though–that’s something every woman has to figure out for herself.
When it was time for radiation, I opted for a shorter duration of treatment. I chose four weeks even though the standard treatment in America is six. To reduce the time by two weeks, the treatment is 30% more radiation each visit. I opted for this “European/Canadian variation” because I was told by my Janeway (my radiologist) that there would be less side effects and less fatigue mentally and physically. Radiation is very structured: in those four weeks, I knew where I was supposed to be at exactly what time every day. Having this structure made me feel very safe.
During those last four treatments though, I was ready for the radiation to be over: my skin felt itchy and started to break out. I have been told that sometimes the rash/breakout can be so bad one has to stop treatments for a while before resuming.
Additionally, towards the end, I started to feel lost emotionally. I had been going so hard and fast that I felt as if I had been running a race only to find myself suddenly coming to the end of the trail that dead ended at the edge of a cliff. There would be no more appointments, tests, or treatments every day. Most importantly, I would stop seeing the people whom I had bonded with–my doctor, the staff, the other patients that came before and after my time slot. But the race still wasn’t over because instead of a sprint, I am now running an endurance marathon where the check point is every few months for the next 5-10 years. They call this new phase, “survivorship.”
Such an abrupt transition can cause depression or a sense of loss and is perfectly normal. At the end of January, I tried to sign up for a transition workshop only to be told that I had to have been out of treatment for at least two weeks (it had only been one), that the workshop was full anyways, and that I could sign up for the next workshop in May. I was irritated as I knew intuitively that whatever I was processing, I would be done by May.
Thankfully, my Yoda (breast cancer navigator) was very helpful during the transition time and told me about this retreat which is finally going to happen. Just hearing from her how many women feel lost or reassess their lives during this period was inspiring. Some women end bad relationships, quit their jobs that they don’t like, or go into therapy. I realized I needed a way to process everything so, I started this blog–it’s so much cheaper than therapy!
During the intake for the retreat, I was asked why I would want to go on this retreat. I said I wanted to meet other women who had walked in my shoes. During treatment, I had no time for a support group as I needed all my energy and keep focused on getting to over the next hurdle. Although I had a very supportive inner circle, I knew only one other person who had breast cancer back then that I could talk to.
I also told the facilitator that I didn’t know what normal was anymore. Now that it’s been three months, I feel like my life has arrived at a new normal. The last time I met up with a friend about a couple of weeks ago, she remarked that I seemed lighter and more energetically lit up. It’s true, I feel like my old self again and I’m looking forward to meeting other women who have walked in my shoes.