It has been exactly one year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, this year has been more than a little bit stressful. I did get the chance to explore myself in a way that I have never thought possible. I know exactly who I am, who I want to be, and what I want to do with my life. I recognize that some of these things change as time goes on and I have slowly come to accept the fact that I do, in fact, have time.
For about five months now I have been teaching English in a small town in China. I am incredibly happy here and truly appreciate the opportunity that I have been given. I believe that it has been good for me to get away from cancer (if that makes any sense). Even though thoughts about cancer are constantly on my mind, I get to be in a place where very few people know about what has happened to me in the last year. I get to be a “new person.” This has really helped me move on with my life and begin to accept that it is okay to have dreams.
There are, however, a few things that are still hard for me and that may take years for me to get over. I think that the biggest and most likely never ending part of this experience is fear. Before the cancer, fear was something I felt, but I don’t think it was ever chronic nor did I consistently understand exactly what I was afraid of and why. Now I know. I am not afraid of dying, but what I will leave behind. I am afraid of hurting those who have impacted me in some way or another. I am afraid of living a life of pain; one that focuses on my physicality and my sadness or the sadness of others. Although, being afraid is a terrible thing, it is not that bad. Actually, it has allowed me to truly value my life and the lives of others. I see kindness and love everywhere I go, and that is no small feat in a world filled with terror, anger, and hate. I think that it is most important in times like these to recognize the value of kindness and the importance of experiencing others. This makes life valuable and worth living regardless of how long or short it is. Although I don’t have cancer any more, it really seems like the experience never ends whether it is impacting my thoughts, emotions, or my body.
Recently, my reconstruction began to fail. My chest expander leaked for some reason and my right breast began shrinking. This has always been a risk and it was one that I was willing to take. However, it is upsetting. I know it’s silly, but the fact that I will have to take either a part of my back or my stomach to help create a new breast is super upsetting to me (let’s hope for the free tummy tuck shall we?). Part of the problem is that I now I have to start all over again and have two separate surgeries a year apart to recreate my breast. The biggest part of the problem, which I am somewhat ashamed of, is that I will have more scars and that it will be two years before I get any sort of breast. It is ridiculous that a person who has been given a second chance at life (as corny as that sounds, it’s true) should be so upset about this. I, who have found strength in myself that I never knew that I had before, am still concerned about how others think of me; specifically, a potential mate. I am twenty-four years old and I have put some thought into the idea of finding someone. I have an amazing family, friends, a fulfilling job, and an incredible life. However, one of the things many young cancer survivors have to think about is finding someone to accept them in their entirety; scars (both physical and emotional), fears, and potential cancer recurrences. I know, I know, everyone has difficulty with this and no one likes to be lonely. I am no exception, but it has certainly become more difficult. I am not saying that there is nobody out there. I have tried dating since the cancer and I quickly realized that finding someone to accept scars and deal appropriately and maturely with physical deformities is quite difficult. I am also incredibly concerned about allowing someone to love me. Part of living with the fact that I had cancer at such a young age is living with the very real possibility of it returning either in the same place or in a different form. I am constantly asking myself if it is wrong to enter into a relationship with someone who I may then unintentionally hurt by dying or forcing them to watch me go through treatment. Is it selfish of me to ask someone to accept me knowing that I could hurt them? I’m not sure.
My own self-image is also not conducive to finding a partner. Many people assured me that losing my breast would become easier with time and that I would feel like a woman again, that I would go through a “redefining of womanhood.” Maybe this is true for some, but it has certainly not been the case for me. I am perfectly okay with no longer having a period and the prospect of being infertile for all of my life and I still feel feminine with my clothes on. With my clothes off, it is a different story. I think that I am a woman and I know that I am a woman, but it hard to validate that when what I see in the mirror is different than my previous conceptions of myself as a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I have accepted my body; I just don’t necessarily like it.
Aside from these rather dark thoughts, I am happy; perfectly and completely happy. Becoming a teacher is perhaps one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I am able to put my theories about kindness and love into practice and see the result. I truly feel like I am making a difference in the world. I live in a wonderful community and my “China family” is warm and comforting. As Christmas comes closer and closer, I pay more attention to the blessings in my life. I am truly blessed and this is reinforced through every smile, hug, and kind word I hear. Thank you for helping me through this year. Happy Cancerversary! Please take time today to recognize the importance of our lives and be kind to someone (Yes, I’m being preachy. Deal with it.).