At the beginning of my cancer journey, I understood what Maya Angelou meant when she said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Once I opened up and started telling my cancer story, I started telling it a lot. After five years, the emotional part of my story has become easier to share – except in one area: My husband and my children. When I talk about them, the same tidal wave of emotion that hit me then hits me again. All I can do is accept and dive into the wave.
It’s hard to explain, but anyone who loves doesn’t need an explanation. My 20-year old daughter was a newborn when I held her in my arms and first felt it. An overwhelming surge of protectiveness washed over me. In an instant I claimed my primal mama bear fierceness and it imprinted on my psyche forever.
Fifteen years later, the phone rang. Because I was alone when I found out my mammogram was suspicious, I decided to sneak back to the breast center without telling my husband. Of course, I didn’t want to go alone, but I put sheltering him over my own best interests. When I came home and told him the truth (and that I now needed a stereotactic biopsy,) I felt horrible about bringing him bad news (and about lying to him by omission.)
Four and a half months later, I had a surgical biopsy and returned, alone, to the breast surgeon’s office to hear my diagnosis. When I think back on it now, I realize with some shock that my husband wasn’t there because I kept him away (he had gone to every appointment and test since I leveled with him.) Again, I prioritized protecting him above letting him be there for me at a critical moment.
Through the entire diagnostic phase, we kept our 15-year old daughter and 12-year old in the dark until I had a treatment plan. When we finally sat them down, I was glad to tell them I wasn’t going to die and would be back to normal after my mastectomy (shows what I didn’t know back then.) I remember being shocked at their response, which wasn’t good. When I look back now, I realize I had focused so intently on protecting them from bad news that I had deluded myself into thinking I had been successful.
After my mastectomy, I felt extremely isolated. As hard as it was to share bad news about my health, it was even harder to share the emotional fallout of living with cancer. My mama bear wanted to be better, happier and move on with my family, but I simply wasn’t able to put cancer behind me so easily.
Now, when I speak with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project I talk about my children and husband knowing I will tear up because their pain still makes me very emotional. I push on because doctors and nurses need to know how significantly a patient’s role as a wife and mother affects her cancer experience.
This is the unspoken burden of women with cancer. We are inseparable from our roles as caregiver, nurturer, confidant and emotional touchstone. We take care of others before we take care of ourselves. Our mama bear instinct is primal and viciously strong and it will over-protect what we care about most in the world – our partners, our children, our parents, our families and our friends.