June 2014, age 43, I was just two months shy of a post-Master’s degree in Italian culture. Florence, Italy had been my home for ten glorious months. Surrounded by Renaissance art, fashion and swooning men, Italy itself was certainly trying hard to woo me. But life had other plans and in the following months. I made it my choice to return to the man who had adored me (and vice versa) before embarking on this journey. Flying back to New Jersey, I moved in with the love of my life. As fate would have it in that small period of time, I was given the news that my beloved father was on his way to hospice.
I was by my Dad’s side every day of his last three weeks on Earth. Upon his death, I had no regrets. I had told him I loved him several times, not once did this stoic man reciprocate, but I sensed it from this hard-working, Italian man. He was the epitome of the American dream.
August 2014 Yearly mammogram and physical: Showed a clean bill of health, but just six weeks later, on the eve of my 43rd birthday, I found a large, hard, alien form on my left breast. My boyfriend said not to worry and that it’s probably a cyst. It’s only natural to talk it down, right? Unfortunately that marked the beginning of an isolating and terrifying journey – cancer.
Stage 3, triple negative breast cancer: My oncologist treated the beast with ACT chemotherapy, my hair falling out week two, as predicted. I wore wigs, hats and learned to draw on eyebrows at a Look Good Feel Better group (a charitable organization dedicated to improving the self-esteem via “complimentary beauty sessions” www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org ) Four months after diagnosis, a single mastectomy gave me a clean bill of health, no need for radiation. I could now say I “had” cancer.
While difficult, neither my divorce nor my sobriety topped fighting for my life. Like any battle, I needed warriors on my team. With comrades in my peripheral vision, I thought I had the most loyal. But, like a game of kickball, the weak ones got bumped. The few left standing, endured. Those were MY people and their true colors lit up like neon signs on my darkest of nights.
Acquaintances sent prayers and tokens of love: chocolates, encouraging books, baskets of fruit, soup, jewelry and even a silk robe. I was overwhelmed with compassion from those witnessing my plight on social media. Unconditionally by my side: my best friends and some family stepped it up without flinching. Hours were spent on the phone with them listening to me cry and accompanying me to appointments. My sister consistently Facetimed me even though she was thousands of miles away on her African safari. I am deeply warmed for the heartfelt effort exhibited by these angels. MY angels.
I took cancer seriously; Saving my life became a full-time job. I spent frustrating hours on the phone with insurance companies and regularly attended breast cancer support groups. I frequented meditation, Chi Kung, Stress Management and Art Therapy classes for cancer patients. I received massages, got my chakras cleared, went to a private therapist, an oncology social worker, took long walks and drank plenty of water. How I wished I was back in Florence surrounded by Giorgio Vasari’s Great Masters.
My objective suddenly became clear: to advocate for my health and other cancer survivors.
I expected the hand-full of breast cancer survivors I knew to reach out with advice on what to anticipate on that gloomy yellow brick road; I heard from only one. I left messages with the others, asking for a connection, to no avail. Maybe they didn’t want to relive their cancer memories? With chemotherapy pumping through my body, I was not in the frame of mind to understand why these survivors wouldn’t reach out, so I turned my attention to those who would and connected with support groups and developing close friendships.
They say disappointment comes from unmet expectations. At the time of diagnosis, my boyfriend, the “One” who showered me with attention during our two magical years of courting, told me he’d be there for me one thousand percent. I assumed him my linchpin. A single dad and head of the department at his firm, he took his career and parenting seriously, as one should. The disconnect occurred when chemotherapy started. Little changed in his routine. He still worked late, ran on the treadmill, ate nuts in front of the television until falling asleep and dutifully escorted his kids to their numerous activities on weekends. Less than a month into chemo, he planned a reunion at our house for his college buddies, a camping trip in the mountains with his children for Thanksgiving and several ski trips with his family. I felt betrayed and thoroughly confused by his actions: how did he consider being by my side could make sense whilst making plans to go away during my treatment?
I didn’t want to be that girlfriend. I didn’t want to be the one that kept him from doing what was important to him: exercising and spending quality time with his friends and family. But wasn’t spending time with me also important? Didn’t my life-threatening illness trump his extra-curricular activities? After the few months of treatment, he could continue satisfying his bucket list, right?! Fearing sounding selfish, needy and greedy, I asked him to focus his free time on me, suggesting he take on less and ask for help: could his teenagers be assigned chores? Was there a carpool he could get involved with on weekends? Could he create boundaries so he could split his time evenly? Could he ask his family and friends for a hand? My cancer that had called for unwelcome changes in his lifestyle was met with disdain.
At times he acquiesced, reacting defensively when faced with challenging decisions. On the occasions he chose to be with me, he made sure I knew what was being given up. I interpreted time spent with me as a burdensome sacrifice, not an act of love, and I harbored guilt. I felt unsafe expressing my needs, as I was often stonewalled; Insisting he was there for me, if at all, he was only there in body. I shut down. In addition to cancer, being disappointed and negated was too painful. It became apparent there was a tug of war for his time and attention and I was not in the lead, not even with cancer on my side.
My man was a people pleaser who didn’t ask for help. When placed under pressure at home, the devout Catholic and Sunday school teacher showed me little compassion. We weren’t a blended family and while I was navigating the betrayal of my health, I also was trying to understand my place in his home and our relationship. He told me he felt like he was drowning and I sensed I was the weight he had to shed in order to come up for air. In his busy life, there was no room for anything outside his ordinary. I was the variable that could be discarded, as I soon was.
He attended a few caregiver support groups, where I hoped he’d gain insight on how to create a balance in caring for both of us. Instead, the group emphasized self-care, naturally. He accused me of threatening his relationship with his teenagers. Horrified, my intention was never to draw a wedge. As I saw his kids becoming more interested in their friends and video games than hanging with their father, I tried to understand the different important connections in his life and how I would play a role.
Couples therapy offered him a podium for his list of grievances as I sat trembling on what I felt was the witness stand. It seemed we went to therapy as a platform to express his “misery.” By the time I came home from surgery, our last session was based on him “desperately” wanting me out of his house, in ten days or less. Unprepared, I thought back to the cancer pamphlets in my oncologist’s office that didn’t portray any frail woman being abandoned by her partner. Feeling utterly betrayed and rejected, I explored relationships and cancer in detail, resulting in my blog entry 50 percent.
Sempre avanti – “Always moving forward.” Here and there, little angels who had heard my story collected both the pieces of my shredded heart and also my belongings, transporting everything to my welcoming friend’s attic–a cozy nest where I felt safe, loved and un-judged. The healing could now commence. Thankful for “No Evidence of Disease” (because they will never say you’re “cancer free”) I was stripped of the rollercoaster ride of emotions from that unfaithful union and my focus redirected. I was left with my disfigured, post-surgery self to develop the most important, sustainable relationship: the one with ME. The same cyclical thoughts would run through my head, What does it mean to love myself? Do I have to have all of my body parts, does my hair have to be a certain way?
“What does it mean to love myself?” The latter was my greatest question thus far. The acceptance of me, myself, was what I needed to be grateful for. I realized that I’m grateful for the awareness to receive the messages of self-love when I meditate, pray and extend a hand: full and whole.
What cancer has taught me: I’ve redirected my focus from him to Him, knowing God loves me unconditionally and will never abandon me. And I realized that those who had stepped up to the plate in my time of need were most selfless, loving and everything that I needed and still need. I am a child of God, whose goal is to be a channel of His peace, no matter what I look like. I am grateful to be given more time on Earth, and I believe I was allowed this time to fulfill a purpose. There’s a reason He kept me here–devoid of some people– graced with others, and I hope to clearly be a vessel for His intention, radiating love whether it be through connecting through spirit, blogging or personal interaction
Sophia Loren said, “Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.” This journey has allowed me to open up my mind to that. To embrace LIFE, though difficult at times. Cancer may have altered the physical and emotional for a bit but it sure doesn’t have me. And never will.