When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought my world had ended. I think back to the young woman lying on the cold table, undergoing a breast biopsy, sobbing into her hospital gown. I was afraid I was going to die. When I received my metastatic diagnosis several weeks later, I wandered around the house aimlessly, in a fog. I had little understanding of the metrics of my progression. We did not have much information on the degree of aggressiveness of my cancer, and I knew of women who went downhill so quickly that their passing felt like whiplash. I wondered if I was fated to be a standing, walking, talking human one day, and find myself weak, unstable, and preparing for death the next.
In the early days and weeks, I didn’t understand the metrics of coping with my disease. That textbook for managing one’s illness is written in real time, by each author, in a manual for precisely one person. I had barely started forming my first draft. In hindsight, it was completely appropriate not to understand the manner in which life will start to unfold, because I hadn’t lived it yet. But at the time, I felt so inexplicably lost that I couldn’t process the idea that there would be a time in which existing felt like anything less than a Sisyphean task. Now, one year in, I am starting to piece together the fragments of my life, and find recognition in the reflection looking back at me.
I am often asked the same question by women several steps behind me on this journey. They want to know, “Will it get better?”
Will it get better? Yes.
Your life will never return to the normal it was before breast cancer. It will be different, but you will find patches of happiness. You will find ways to feel again, and eventually, you will feel things other than gnawing uncertainty and terror; the nonstop, consuming fear will subside, to some degree. The continually flowing tears will ebb, and the shock and pain will dull. Life will once again feel joyful, and the numbness will start to wear off. As the seasons change, you will begin to recognize a new familiarity, and a new routine. You will find a new life to claim as yours.
Will it get better? No.
Your life will never be the same. There will never be a point in time where this disease is far from your mind. Life with cancer is hard – very hard – and there’s not really a way around it. You will never fully return to that point of pre-cancer innocence. “Better” is subjective, to be sure. But there is a significance, loss of innocence, that never returns.
Today is the first anniversary of my diagnosis. A year ago today, I left my house for what I thought was a “nothing” ultrasound, an afterthought, a “just in case,” and I came home eleven hours later with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Nothing in my life has been the same since. It almost goes without saying that is not something I ever would have chosen for myself. But in this new life, I have found parts of myself that were sleeping, hidden, unnecessary, until I had to call upon that strength I didn’t know I had in order to keep surviving. I have met amazing people, people that I would not know in such an intimate space, but for my breast cancer diagnosis. I do not find joy in my illness – make no mistake – but I find joy in the people I have met, the moments that I more fully grasp my humanity, and the richness in which my life has played out this past year. Would I also find joy in these things had I not been diagnosed with breast cancer? I like to think that I would. However, there is no way of knowing: that is not the path set forth for me, and my perception will be forever shifted by the life I am living post-diagnosis.
I have been forced to confront aspects of my existence that most people do not have to confront until many, many decades later. I bear scars, both emotional and physical, because of the challenges of the past year. How does one commemorate the year that, year ago, we weren’t sure I would have? As the leaves outside change, and we enter into another holiday season, this territory feels less alien, more familiar. There is comfort in familiarity, even when going through hell. There is comfort in the wearing of a path, even if what lies ahead is completely unknown.
So does it get better, a year later? I don’t know. Life does not produce particularly solid quantitative measurements, and those qualitative data points we do receive are unique to each individual. In cancer, as in life, I only have the opportunity to set down one data point at a time. And as it was for me a year ago, and as it is now, a year later, the world has not stopped moving because of the enormity of my diagnosis. I do not have a lens through which I could see the routes not taken, the routes not available to me. I only know of the steps before of me because of what I have gained and lost from the steps in my stead. in short, life goes on.