How the anniversary of my mastectomy following breast cancer, reminds me that sadness and anxiety are unexpectedly close to the surface.
I’ve always thought of myself as a glass half empty person and I’ve experienced anxiety and depression over many years. I’ve also been very good at catastrophic thinking. I mean, why wouldn’t I have got cancer? I always thought that it would be bowel cancer, so it was the type of cancer that I got, not that I got cancer which was the surprise. I’d had a run of bad luck with my physical wellbeing for a couple of years before the really big stroke of bad luck that was cancer.
About four years ago, I slipped in the mud on a dog walk and tore the ligaments in my right ankle. That was painful enough but proved to be nothing compared to the raging sciatic pain that set in down my left leg and foot a few months later. It turned out that I had two bulging discs and spinal stenosis and it really was very bloody painful! I ended up taking Tramadol which didn’t do too much to ease the pain but produced a wonderful feeling of light headedness when mixed with enough champagne at Christmas!
Throw in the extraction of one of my front teeth, the wearing of a denture for six months (which I often forgot to insert on leaving the house, resulting in many tight lipped excursions), and the placement of a dental implant, and I was beginning to think that 50 was actually the new 80.
It wasn’t just me that was in the midst of illness and injury either. A few years ago, my medical student son, Dan, decided to test out his new found stethoscope skills on the rest of his family. His sister Laura and I passed the breathing and heart beating test with flying colours.
Liam it seemed was not quite so straightforward – “Dad, you should go and see your GP”. Liam, being a man, decided to ignore this advice. He eventually visited our GP about six months later and was immediately referred to a cardiologist. What Dan had heard was a pretty prominent heart murmur, and it turns out that he probably saved Liam’s life.
Liam’s heart murmur was caused by some dodgy plumbing that would need monitoring in the anticipation of an eventual operation.
On January 22nd, 2016, having been high on Tramadol and champagne over Christmas and the New Year, my world came crashing down when I got my breast cancer diagnosis. Amazingly, four days later, Liam was told that he needed to have open heart surgery in the next three months – much sooner than we had been expecting.
Both Liam and I were suddenly face to face with our mortality and as far as I was concerned, it was not a great place to be. 2016 was the worst year of my life (apart from Laura’s 21st birthday and both her and Dan’s graduations) and I felt so many different emotions – fear, anger, stress, sadness, anxiety, – and experienced so many difficult events – my two operations, chemotherapy, total body baldness, extreme fatigue, pain, worry for Liam when he had his operation less than one month after mine.
However, since the start of this year, I’ve been feeling much more upbeat and, yes, happier than I have been for quite a long time. It feels like my decision to have my second breast removed has given me a new lease of life and I‘m really happy with my new body shape. So, I wasn’t prepared for the black cloud that started to blot out the sunniness that I’d been feeling for almost three months in the middle of last week. What was going on? Why was I feeling so weepy and miserable again?
Then I realised – last Saturday, St Patrick’s Day, was the second anniversary of my first mastectomy. My subconscious mind had remembered before I was properly conscious of the date myself. As soon as I started thinking about the date, all of the memories came flooding back. How scared I felt before the operation, how scared I felt after the operation. How I was sure that I’d never get used to having only one breast, how upsetting it was to look at myself in the mirror. All of these thoughts running round and round in my head and self-perpetuating the feelings of sadness and self-pity.
I think that what I’ve been doing is grieving for my lost breast. I don’t think there’s been time for that grief in the previous two years, as they’ve been taken up with all of the treatments, operations and appointments, and then concentrating on getting my energy back, and trying not to worry about the cancer coming back, and deciding to have another mastectomy, and recovering from that operation and, and, and ……. I’m sure you get what I’m going on about.
Grief is a stealthy emotion. It creeps up on you when you’re least expecting it. I experience grief differently to sadness, which can sit on my shoulder for days on end. Grief, however punches me in the stomach, pokes me in the eye, kicks me in the shin and then runs away until the next time it feels like committing GBH on me. Grief causes me physical pain and makes me feel sick to my stomach. I’d forgotten what grief felt like until it came back to remind me last weekend.
It was also a reminder to me that my emotions are bubbling away just below the surface in my mind. It only takes a little nudge for me to be tipped back into the maelstrom of rumination and dark thoughts. I’m reminded that self-care, compassion and kindness should always be uppermost in my mind, and that I have to keep working at being positive and moving forward with my life. And it’s OK to be not OK sometimes. It’s OK to recognise that today is a bad day. I now try to sit with that difficult feeling until it passes, because it will pass.