As my gynecologist’s nurse struggled to explain why my mammogram was suspicious without once using the word ‘cancer,’ it slowly dawned on me that she was carefully measuring her every word to fend off panic.
People expect fear to ignite when cancer enters the picture. Of course I was afraid, but it wasn’t fear that motivated me to do what I did next.
I hung up the phone resolved to handle this alone. Rather than immediately calling my husband, my plan was to return to the breast center for additional testing in secret. I absolutely needed his support, but I couldn’t bear the thought of causing my spouse of 21 years the worry that phone call caused me. Like it or not, I was going to stay mum until I knew more.
Best case scenario, I would go to the breast center, get good news and tell him after the fact. Worst case scenario — well, I didn’t actually have a plan for that.
A few days later while my husband was at work and our children were at school, I snuck back to the breast center. I was lying by omission and didn’t feel good about it, but being both the bearer of bad news and its cause riddled me with tremendous guilt.
It didn’t go well. I was alone as the technician took what seemed like a hundred different views. I was alone when the radiologist came into the room to tell me she didn’t like what she saw and would need to schedule a stereotactic biopsy. As I drove home I was scared to death and now had to break the horrible news to my husband that I might have breast cancer.
Unfortunately, coming clean didn’t ease my guilt. Later, I called a cancer center in New York City and was cheerily told that though my insurance wasn’t accepted, an appointment could be set up right away. I couldn’t hang up the phone fast enough! It terrified me to risk making my cancer a financial burden on my family and I vowed to stay in network for all of my treatment.
The issue came up again when my plastic surgeon suggested a procedure to enhance my reconstructed breast which was considered cosmetic and not covered by insurance. I agonized over the cost until my husband had to firmly, but lovingly, tell me to knock it off and get it done.
That procedure was a small part of the entire mastectomy and reconstruction process, but it taught an important lesson. Knowing that guilt is an irrational emotion didn’t make it go away, so I had to learn to force myself to get what I needed in spite of it. When I felt guilty for needing someone to drive me to therapy after my mastectomy, I asked anyway because therapy was vital to my emotional healing. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t cope with the stress of teaching my daughter to drive, but I just didn’t have the resources. I felt guilty not being “over cancer” as quickly as my family and friends, but I had to stand up for myself if I was ever going to move forward.
Even now, six years after treatment, guilt still makes an occasional appearance. As a stage 0 cancer patient who “only” needed a mastectomy, I was plagued by survivor’s guilt after my diagnosis. Just the other day I fell into it again when there was nothing I could do for a cancer patient who was crying from the pain of chemotherapy-induced neuropathy in her hands. Much worse is the horrible guilt of losing metastatic cancer patients who leave behind grieving family and friends while I’m still here.
I confess that I have no idea how to stop cancer from sending me on a guilt trip. Intellectually, I know cancer isn’t my fault, but that obviously doesn’t matter. Guilt is just one more byproduct of cancer and when it takes hold, all I can do is take a breath, remind myself that it’s neither real nor useful and try to move through it.
Do you feel guilty about cancer too? Let’s talk about it.
Survival > existence,
Image courtesy of Sherman Geronimo-Tan