Getting Past the Anger
If you’ve ever been diagnosed with a serious illness, you might have felt like your body betrayed you. At least that’s how I felt when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was the poster girl for healthy living: I ate fresh fruits and vegetables, grilled chicken and fish, no fast food or sugar, a glass of wine here and there; got lots of exercise, regular checkups and yearly mammograms.
After the shock wore off, my fear turned to anger and then to depression. I remember cowering in my car in PetSmart’s parking lot, crying hysterically, unable to go in and buy dog food or get on the highway and drive home. It had been three months since my diagnosis, and the full impact of what it meant to have breast cancer had finally hit me. In addition to fear, depression and disbelief, I was struggling with overwhelming concepts like life, death and self-image—would my husband love me with my scars—not to mention the unsettling possibility of recurrence. And then, the most amazing thing happened.
Eight days after my mastectomy, my girlfriends and I went to an outdoor Sting concert. The heat index was 110 degrees. I wore white linen and my turkey basters, the drains that dangled from rubber tubing, surgically attached to where my breast had been. Our seats were in the last row. Carrot Top could have been lip-syncing Sting songs for all we knew. As I looked around at the thousands of women in the audience, I couldn’t shake the thought that statistically, one out of eight would be diagnosed with breast cancer.
I studied them: teenagers, women in their 20s and 30s, 40s and 50s, looking from one to the other and thinking, “She has it and doesn’t know it. She’s going to have it. She’s had it.” Breast cancer. The unspoken fear we all harbor deep within. The fear that changes our lives forever. But in that moment, I realized that life didn’t get any better than this. I had a husband who loved me no matter what; I was alive and with my two best friends since high school, singing and clapping as though my world hadn’t been condensed onto a pathology slide two inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide.
At that moment I was overcome with the urge to hug every woman there. I wanted to tell them to keep singing; keep laughing; keep living; to pull from each moment the things they wanted to remember. To savor them; laugh at them and to live their lives deliberately and intentionally. In that moment, I’d crossed a bridge I never wanted to cross. One of the things I feared most had already happened. I could be angry and let it ruin the rest of my life, or I could make a conscious decision not to let my cancer define me. Cancer may have taken my breast, but it would not take my spirit and my will.
Like many of us, I’m grieving the loss of Nora Ephron, the funny, poignant and honest writer with the unfailing ability to put into words the things we were feeling. As Nora once said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” From what I’ve read, that’s how Nora handled her leukemia diagnosis. I know from experience that it’s easier said than done, but when faced with that thing we fear most, we must find a way to let go of anger and fear. While we can never return to the days before cancer ravaged our bodies, we can allow it to sharpen our resolve to survive.
Brenda Ray Coffee is an entrepreneur and a breast cancer survivor. In late 2009, Coffee created the Survivorship Media Network, LLC. The network’s first property, BreastCancerSisterhood.com, is one of the few survivorship resources for women, husbands/caregivers and children, from point of diagnosis, to finding their new normal after treatment and beyond. Her site includes Brenda’s Blog. With no topic off limits, Brenda has been called the Carrie Bradshaw/Sex & the City of breast cancer, and her dry wit has been compared to Erma Bombeck. Ms. Coffee blogs for Whole Foods, ModernMom.com and numerous Hearst newspapers.