OPINION – It really appears that the area I live in is in the midst of an epidemic of breast cancer. I cannot figure out if this is true because we are fortunate to have access to some of the nation’s best doctors and thus we are reported on with more accuracy and frequency or whether we are, in large proportion, a privileged pocket of educated people who have in many cases the means to seek and obtain better healthcare or whether there is something in our air, our water or our genetics. 10 commandments breast cancer
I only know of too many women that this has happened to.
I am one of them.
Now, before I make you uneasy with this topic and you make a graceful exit from this screen, please allow me to tell you my side. I know, I know, I generally write irreverently and gently humorous pieces on beauty topics and the grinning woman wearing the tiara in my head shot doesn’t fit this profile or so you’d think.
Well, as with so many preconceived notions, this one is wrong. I did indeed go through that crucible and while I did not emerge unscathed, I am relatively just fine. In fact, I am an awful lot healthier! I like to think the experience was not only empowering, it made me a better soul. This issue is so near and dear to me and to all women that I knew I had to write this.
One thing that stood out in particular to me was how my friends and family handled it. Not well, as can be imagined. I believe it is lack of knowing what to do that causes this, not lack of caring. Gosh, if you feel helpless, imagine how we feel. So, to help fellow sisters going thru this I have put together my own Ten Commandments for helping your friend with breast cancer. It applies to the newly diagnosed, the current patient and the survivor still holding those battle scars in her heart, if not on her body. I hope it is helpful. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but these tips hold true at any time of year.
of How to Act When Your Friend has Breast Cancer
1. Do not ignore it and talk of other things. Believe me; it doesn’t make us feel better. It’s on our minds, at least when we are in active treatment, 24/7. We want and need to talk about it. If you refuse to acknowledge it, we feel like a non-person.
2. Don’t move your chair away from mine at a PTA meeting or a restaurant. Yes, we notice this and we get it. But cancer isn’t catching, you know. Everyone has cancer cells lying dormant in their body. Yes, all of us, no exceptions. Whether they become active in one’s lifetime is in the lap of the gods.
3. Please don’t stare at my chest. Yes, many of us got “rebuilt” and yes, they look better than an 18 year-old’s. All those stories you heard on this one are mostly true with a few exceptions. However, it’s still rude. And yes, we are self conscious. In many cases we cannot quite believe this silver lining turned out so very well. Akin to sixth graders in puberty, we can be shy and wary; our confidence has taken a hit. And like those little girls, we do not care for people staring at our chests for any reason. For those of us that chose not to rebuild*, well, don’t be rude. It’s a choice and the right one for us if we chose it. We aren’t staring at your eyebrows, or hair or stockings, are we? (And if we are, please ask us not to!)
* I use the term “rebuild.” My plastic surgeon kept referring to it as a “reconstruction.” This sounded to me like Atlanta after the war and I didn’t care much for it. I felt like a bit of wreck already! So to my ear, I liked “rebuild” better.
4. Questions regarding #3 are out of the question. Got it? Good. Thank you. If we want you to know anything, we’ll tell you.
5. If you wonder what to do or say, don’t. Just do something. Anything. And say something, even if you are worried it’s the wrong thing to say. Take it from me. The wrong thing to do or say is to do or say absolutely nothing. At least we’ll know you care. Many hearts have been bruised (my own, too) by family and friends “avoiding the subject.” Don’t. Talk about an elephant in the room! Yoiks. Just say something. Send flowers and cards.
6. If you want to help, ask. But be specific. We’re pretty overwhelmed and making choices is one of those things we have had to let go of. We are already making life and death decisions daily. So say something like “I’m coming over next week to do your laundry. Let me know a good day and time.” Or “I want to bring you dinner on Tuesday. What do you feel like eating?” This makes it very easy for us both. And oh, if someone cooks we are SO grateful.
7. Ask us to a movie, to dinner, to lunch, for a walk. Give us a specific time and place. We need to get out and do normal things but we lack energy and motivation. Please give us a chance and an encouraging nudge. We’d be grateful.
8. Don’t be a false cheerleader but do be upbeat and positive. We need someone to cheer us on as this road can seem endless at times. One of my wonderful friends sent me a beautiful copper satin low cut shirt during chemo. It was the most frivolous, useless-at-the-moment gifts one could imagine. But did it ever lift my spirits! My husband was forever gifting me with lovely things from Victoria’s Secret. I couldn’t wear any of these At The Moment. But their confidence that I was Still Me and that this was temporary meant the world to me. So go ahead! Give her something beautiful!
9. Use humor!! It literally saved my sanity during all of this. My thinking has always taken that pathway and this seemed so incongruous, it worked for me. Besides, if you can laugh at it, to my mind, you win. En route to surgery, I took a sharpie marker and wrote on myself, “Please make me pretty like my big sister!” It made me laugh and the operating room too. Why not? *
* Of course if the situation is very dire, your best judgment here. Humor is not always appropriate for every situation.
10. Give back when you’re on the other side. I get contacted by my ob/gyn’s office to go and play doula to newly-diagnosed ladies. I wear a low cut blouse showing off my new “lakefront property” to prove that life is OK on the other side. I bring a giant bouquet of roses. I greet them with a big hug and a “Welcome to the ‘Oh Crap’ Club. No one wants to join, but you meet the world’s nicest people here!” This approach usually breaks the ice easily. We laugh, have tea, they tell their tale, (if they want to, no pressure at all) and I have the most wonderful friends in the universe from meeting this way. It is my privilege and my honor.
The women I have met doing this are quite literally amazing. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is til you put her in hot water.” I’ll say. I’ve been humbled by the grace and Amazon-like strength I’ve encountered. Put any one of them in a war. They’d win it.
And make no mistake. We have been in one. We are veterans. Some of us have PTSD, some of us are stumbling across the finish line, some, like me, have let it wash away with the tide. But I’ve never forgotten how it felt. I hope I never do, to keep me humble and full of gratitude for the grace I have received.
And yes, some of us don’t make it. These are heroes, fallen warriors. And I lose a friend. But then I remember: love is stronger than death.
So there you have it, at least from my perspective and from the many friends I have across the country that has been through this crucible, as well. That tiara I am wearing in my head shot on my blog? Not just a silly contest title. I earned it at my “5 years cancer free/50th birthday” party. Best piece of jewelry I ever got besides my wedding ring and my daughter’s guardian angel necklace mom’s day gift. (Or anything she ever made me. She is my hope, my pride and my endless joy.)
Love hard, live well, and laugh as much as you can. And remember that we are women exactly like you; we just have taken a slightly crooked pathway to get here. And we are so very, very happy to have gotten here. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same, but I’d give back even more. I have been gifted with so very much that I want to embrace every woman I meet that I hear has been through this. I want to say, “There, there. Me too, sweetie. It’s going to be OK.” Maybe not perfect, but if I have anything to say about it (and I usually do), it will be OK.
The day I found out, I was stunned but only for a few seconds. In my head it went this way: ”Well, that’s a mess…what now? My daughter’s only 12 years old, so clearly, dying’s out… Now what? OK, let’s roll.”
We all stand together in this fight, shoulder to shoulder. I believe we will win. For all of us, for those we lost and those still to come, we will win. For our daughters, for our granddaughters, for our friends. With the advances being made every day, I’d be astonished if this scourge was not eradicated within my lifetime.
Not “Hope.” No, because to me, that phrase leaves doubt of the outcome. Add to Hope: Conviction.
And when it’s all over and you are still standing, call me. We’ll go shopping together. For lingerie. And life will go on leaving you bruised but upright, stronger and more beautiful inside and out.
Anne Ambuhl is a very grateful, two-time, seven-year survivor who lives each day to the max. She’s happy to talk to anyone needful of help or information on getting through the cancer process and recovery. Anne authors the ACT TWO blog “Eye of the Beholder.” You can read her posts here.
This article is dedicated with love to the Whittingham Cancer Center and the wonderful doctors and team there, especially Dr. Rich Zelkowitz. Thank you from the bottom of my ever-grateful heart.
And to Charlie and Caroline. My joys. My strength. My loves.