This fall marks my 20th anniversary as a breast cancer survivor. During the early part of my journey, I felt a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty regarding my future. At the age of 47, it was challenging for me to accept the loss of a breast, especially since there was no cancer in my family.
It was 2001, and I was raising three teenagers. I worked out regularly, cooked fresh meals every night and managed a freelance writing career. I thought that I was living a healthy lifestyle. But life had other plans.
Turn off the TV
Just about everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. It was a day that none of us can possibly forget, and led to an intense period of mourning. I have an immediate association with that time, because only a few days earlier, I’d come home from my breast cancer surgery. I was seated at my kitchen table, waiting for my friend Loren to come over with bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, when the phone rang.
“Are you watching TV?” Loren asked.
“Well, you should see what happened in New York. I’m in too much shock to leave the house. Let’s reschedule our breakfast.”
I turned on the TV, and like the rest of the world, I watched in disbelief. I was glued to the television, and while mourning the loss of a breast, I was also mourning the huge loss to our country. In many ways, the experience set me back emotionally, and impeded my own healing.
Just as I was gaining hope for myself, I began to lose hope for humanity. I wondered how such a horror could have been perpetrated on our country. Fear infiltrated every aspect of my life, both personally and globally. At home, the TV was continually blaring, and like many others, I watched those beautiful World Trade Center towers falling over and over again. It was all so very depressing, at a time when I really needed to feel uplifted.
So instead of being informed minute-by-minute, I decided to turn off the TV, to begin my healing journey in a nurturing manner. With the help of loved ones and many healing modalities such as meditation and calming music, a sense of hope slowly returned. I began to live again, and continued to do so in a very vibrant and productive manner.
Just days after my mastectomy and reconstruction, I remember speaking to a cancer survivor who told me, “You will never look at life in the same way.” Her comment resonated with my belief that I could survive whatever life tossed in my direction, and for the past six decades, this has been the case. My cancer diagnosis offered me the opportunity to appreciate all that I had to be grateful for and to not take anything for granted. Thus, cancer transformed me, physically and spiritually.
From a purely physical standpoint, I began to accept that the landscape of my body would never be or feel the same. My daily glances in the mirror became a continual reminder of my journey. The past 20 years have dulled the emotional pain, as I’ve learned to focus on the positive. I revel in the fact that I’m still alive, and am able to see my five grandchildren grow and thrive.
The beginning of my cancer journey began a few months after my eldest daughter was discharged from a drug rehabilitation facility, when I received a phone call from my doctor.
“Hello, this is Mel Silverstein.” Intuitively, I sensed that he was phoning with bad news. I felt like ducking underneath my desk, the way I had in elementary school in New York, in the 1960s, during nuclear-warfare drills. I wondered if anyone ever hid under a desk to protect themselves from getting a cancer diagnosis.
Part of me wanted to hang up the phone and let someone else do the listening, yet a voice in the corner of my mind whispered that I had to hear what my physician had to say. I took a deep breath.
“Well, Diana, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Is your husband with you?”
Within seconds, I completely lost my sense of focus and concentration.
“Yes. We’re both here. We’ll put you on speakerphone.”
Dr. Silverstein said, “I’m calling to give you the biopsy results that just came in. As I said, there’s good news and bad news. The biopsy did show DCIS—quite diffuse around the breast.”
Suddenly, I felt myself slip out of the moment, far away into some other state of consciousness. Dr. Silverstein’s voice sounded garbled, among my inner mutterings. Denial overpowered me, and all of life’s fears began to surface and ring true.
He continued, “DCIS, or ductal carcinoma in situ, means that small cancer cells have begun to settle and grow in your mammary ducts. As far as I know, there is only some slight micro-invasion, but how extensive that really is, I won’t know until more surgery is done.”
My worst nightmare was surgery
Only fragments of his entire conversation were audible to me. When he uttered the word surgery, he lost me again. As a former nurse, my worst nightmare was surgery. I knew and understood everything that could possibly go wrong. Plus, wasn’t eight months of bed rest, one miscarriage, three Cesareans and knee surgery enough for one lifetime? The entire situation seemed surreal. I wanted to curl up and call it quits.
The phone conversation became a blur of dialogue echoing through my mind. I tried to deny everything the doctor was saying about my 47-year-old body, and for a split second, I wondered if Dr. Silverstein had gotten his patients mixed up. I desperately wanted that to be the case.
My eyes scanned my outdoor landscape, as if the swaying bamboo tree outside my office would offer some solace or explanation. I looked beyond to the blue sky, sprinkled with clouds, as the sun began setting upon the horizon. I had never prayed, but I looked up into the heavens and pleaded with my deceased father to make sure everything would be all right. He’d survived the Nazi Holocaust, and I hoped he’d help me survive this internal holocaust as well.
I glanced up towards the black-and-white school photos of our three children, hanging on my office wall. The innocence and love in their eyes caused me to tear up. I just couldn’t focus on my doctor’s words, as all I kept thinking was, this must be a mistake, but I have to survive.
We hung up, and my husband drew me close, holding me as tight as he did the day my father had died. I melted into him. As he had protected me so many times before, he promised to take care of me no matter what. For about five minutes, silence reverberated in the room, until he blurted out, “Fuck!” We looked at each other and collided foreheads, as if that act would make the news sink in … or simply make it go away.
“You will survive, and you will thrive. I know it,” he whispered in my ear.
I wanted to die. That had to be a better alternative than mutilating the part of me that had nursed and nurtured all three of my children—the part of me symbolizing femininity, the part men were so taken with when they looked at women. For the first time in my life, I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I would never have considered taking my life, but I saw a glimpse of what it might be like to be on the cusp of that thought.
The healing power of words
In the end, I obviously survived the surgery and the emotional rollercoaster that followed. I once read that some women become so jarred by the physical changes after breast cancer that many consider having an affair to reaffirm their femininity. But in my case, because of my passion for the healing power of words and teaching others the benefits of writing for healing, I submerged myself in journaling and writing articles about breast cancer.
In the end, I wrote a self-help memoir called Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. I was informed that it helped so many other women heal from their own cancer experiences. I immersed myself in all that brought me joy—writing, plus spending valuable time with loved ones and doing needlepoint projects.
To help nourish my will to survive, I put myself in situations that made me feel good about myself, and surrounded myself with people with positive outlooks and good energy. I suppose this is what intuitively happens when you come face-to-face with your own mortality—you refuse to allow individuals into your life who drain you of the vital energy that will contribute to your own healing. It felt like my spirit’s natural defense mechanism was kicking in.
As a former nurse and lifetime caregiver, I had often been the person people came to for assistance or emotional support. But although helping others still gives me a great deal of pleasure, I now ration the amount of time I devote to being a caregiver. Before my cancer diagnosis, I don’t believe I worried too much about myself, but now I make more of a point of doing so.
In terms of my productivity, I’ve always been driven, personally and professionally. Shortly after my diagnosis, I felt a deep sense of urgency to see important people and finish up writing projects, as I had no idea how much time I had left to live. Now that I’ve survived for 20 years and am in my late sixties, I realize that I can call myself a survivor and take more time to just be. I have less of a desire to be productive.
Because my breast cancer was in the very early stages, my oncologists said that my prognosis was excellent. Unfortunately, five years after my diagnosis, I was told I had multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer for which there is no cure, although there is treatment.
I became even more diligent about maintaining healthy habits, and I suppose my persistence has helped, as now, 15 years later, I still have no symptoms that would warrant treatment, although my blood levels of IgA have remained high, which is a sign of the disease.
Find out what makes your heart sing
Whenever anybody is diagnosed with cancer, I share what my oncologist told me just after my breast-cancer diagnosis: “If this condition or experience does not rivet your focus on life, then you’ve missed the point.”
I think this is apropos for any illness that we’re dealing with. As time goes on, I agree more and more with this sentiment. I realize how his words instilled in me a great deal of hope, even though after my diagnosis, I did feel a huge sense of hopelessness.
One important lesson I learned is that when going through challenging times, such as an illness, it’s important to get in touch with your heart centre and tap into your life’s passions. Look for what brings you joy. Find out what makes your heart sing. This can make a huge difference in your healing journey.
No doubt, my love for writing helped me through this ordeal, and that’s exactly what I recommend for others navigating similar or difficult journeys: Find a passion—something that makes your heart sing—and envelop yourself in it!
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