When you are diagnosed with a life threatening illness, you do your best to “get it out” or take care of it as quickly as possible. The choices you have to make may put you in between a rock and a hard place, but when it comes down to the wire, if the choice is between life and death, most of us will do what it takes to get there. Anything to get us to the NED point- No Evidence of Disease. It’s a bittersweet celebration to hear those words, bittersweet because of the need to process the collateral damage treatment has cost you as well as survivor guilt for all of the companions you have met on your journey who will not hear those words or who have lost opportunities because of the collateral damage.
When I think of lost opportunities, many things come to mind. I think of my younger breast cancer sisters who are faced with losing the chance to have biological children because treatment will render them infertile. If they were lucky, they may have been able to gather the thousands of dollars required (while managing the craziness of the diagnosing stage) to harvest their eggs for the possibility of pregnancy down the road. If and when they attempt to become pregnant, the decision is coupled with the awareness that the cancer will come back and that they will not get to see their children grow up. Listening to their stories reminds me of the deep appreciation that I was able to have children, yet at the same time brings the feelings of survivor guilt.
Yes, we are thankful to be alive, and the trade off is that we have grief work to do.
We grieve the temporary and permanent alterations of our body, a fact that we observe every time we look into the mirror. It rattles our sense of security, reminds us of the fine line everyone walks between life and death. Our sexual health is impacted physiologically, requiring patience and tenderness as we repair our sexual identity and look for solutions for satisfactory and hopefully pain free sexual experience. We worry about pleasing our partners and (hopefully) ourselves, we are vulnerable to rejection, we have complex feelings about the changes and challenges we face.
One of my favorite quotes, by psychologist Robert Neimeyer, about the risk of connection sums it up beautifully: “We’re wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. How we negotiate that tension shapes who we become”. We cannot heal without the emotional connection with others. We cannot live a full life in fear of what will come. When you face a life threatening condition, the universe is asking us to live more boldly than you ever imagined was possible. Chose your company wisely, and give yourself permission to accept and experience the wide range of thoughts and feelings that come with the ride.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers an individual program, in person or via Skype, teaching art and meditation; workshops; and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.