So You Have Breast Cancer, Now What?

Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re like most patients, you’ve had a mammogram or other diagnostic test that revealed something was amiss. Those tests were likely followed by a breast biopsy and the news you never wanted to hear. And, it sucks. There, I said it. It sucks. It’s completely okay to sit in the suck for a bit. Your life has been turned on its head. That’s scary, terrifying actually, because you’re looking at a huge unknown filled with the unspeakable. And my friends, you’re going to have to face it down. But not now. Now, you can cry and eat as much chocolate as you want. However, there is one thing that you should not do under any circumstances at this point in your life.

Do not go on the Internet. I mean it. Stop searching right now because this will only fuel the fear, anxiety, and sadness you’re already experiencing. And, so much of the information that’s out there is utter crap. I know the urge to research is strong, but for right now, trust me, the Internet isn’t your friend or your doctor. Instead of trolling around online, ask your doctor or nurse navigator for resources and support groups to help you process your diagnosis in a reasonable way. I’ll also list several websites below that I found helpful as I went through treatment. (Don’t scroll down now.)

As you digest this news, you may be thinking how am I ever going to tell my kids (if you have them) or friends or family members? I’ll start with the kids since, if you’re a parent, this may be keeping you up at night. I can only speak from my experience, but my plan to share the information once I knew everything and to tell my three children, then ages 19, 15 and 10, at the same time pretty much blew up in my face and caused them a great deal of pain—not what I was going for, to be honest. I know the desire to protect our children is instinctive and strong. But, dear ones, there is no protecting them from this news. Withholding information likely may backfire, and your kids will know something is wrong anyway. So be honest with them because even though you’re the patient, your entire family will experience this disease.

Those words apply equally to how you share this news with friends and other family members, with one caveat—don’t be surprised if some of your friends or family members respond in unexpected ways. Cancer is frightening and unfortunately, not everyone handles news of this magnitude in sympathetic or supportive ways. I know this is an awful thing to contemplate, but it’s the number one thing that survivors I’ve met, known, or spoken with have told me that they wished they’d known from the start.

In the first few weeks after your diagnosis, you might think that you’ve got this. You’re an intelligent, independent, capable adult, right? Here’s the thing, though, the psychic weight of this diagnosis is so crushing, that your typical self can malfunction. You may forget things, get confused, or freeze, unable to process or plan. So, gather your team. Your team may include family members, trusted friends, spouses, partners, but you cannot go through cancer treatment, surgery, and recovery without some peeps to help out. Take a team member with you to your appointments. Ask them to take notes on a phone, laptop, tablet, or on paper about everything the doctors or other health care professionals say. It’s important to ask questions about the diagnosis, treatment, risks and benefits of the various treatments, and side effects. So, ask as many questions as you need until you understand the explanation. And, don’t be afraid to follow-up by phone or text if you have a question after your appointment. I also found it helpful to keep a notebook to jot down a question or concern for my doctors, and at my next appointment, I’d ask them.

As you set out on this new path—not one you asked to be put on to be sure—I promise that you will find the courage, strength, and resilience to walk it, one step, one day, one week at time. You’re so much stronger than you know. Be kind to yourself and to the ones who love you. And, know that you’re not alone.

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A breast cancer diagnosis at forty-nine forces Christine Shields Corrigan, a wife, mom, and meticulous list-maker, to confront her deepest fears of illness, death, and loss of control as she struggles to face cancer again. From the discovery of a “junky” cyst, to chemotherapy and surgery, sleepless nights filled with rosaries and “what ifs,” and shifting family dynamics, her adult experience mirrors her teen bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with one exception-she no longer has parents keeping her in the dark.

With fierce honesty, poignant reflection, and good humor, Chris shares a journey filled with sorrow, grace, forgiveness, and resilience, as she wends her way through cancer for the second time. Again offers practical guidance and hope to individuals that they have the strength to forge a path beyond a diagnosis.


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Christine Shields Corrigan
Christine Shields Corrigan, a two-time cancer survivor, wife, and mom, gives voice to the beautiful ordinary in her lyrical and practical essays. Her work about family, illness, writing, and resilient survivorship has appeared in a number of outlets. A graduate of Manhattan College and Fordham University School of Law, Chris teaches creative nonfiction writing for an adult education program, provides writing workshops for cancer support groups, and serves on the programming committee of the Morristown Festival of Books.