The first image is of losing your hair to chemotherapy and is full of anger and angst. The second is me in my new long wig looking fine LOL. The third is a self portrait week 6 of Taxol after starting Klonopin for anxiety. The point is…it’s a roller-coaster of emotions. One day you are up and the next you are down. Hell, it can be minute to minute sometimes. Yesterday, I was tooling along at home and forgot I had cancer…yes…it happens. Then, I pass a mirror, and it hit me all at once, an overwhelming tsunami of emotion until I was battered by the weight of it all. Then, once I had collected myself, I applied my make-up, drew on some eyebrows and an eyelash line and selected a wig then went to work for a few hours.
I find that work has helped keep me level…don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing anything meaningful. I don’t see patients and I don’t operate right now, but I am interacting with the people I used to see everyday and that counts for something. Sometimes it is awkward and uncomfortable and people ask me inappropriate questions all the time, but it is somewhat familiar and it helps keep me sane.
Ever since my diagnosis, it seems like breast cancer is popping up in everyone I know or someone they know…it is an epidemic, which of course it has been. It has just never been so personal and the weight of it is immense. I wonder if I will ever be able to operate on breast cancer patients again…it is my number one worry behind living to see my daughter grow up. Cancer is a trauma, and I am just beginning to realize how extensive that trauma can be. It can create PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) when confronted with situations which remind you of your experience, thus the fear of breast cancer patients in the future. I can’t imagine giving up this part of my surgical practice, but I also can’t predict how my trauma will affect me in the future.
As much as I ignored it the first few months of chemo, I have begun seeing a psychotherapist to mitigate any long lasting negative emotional effects my cancer may have on me…so far, we’ve met once and she advised me to express myself through self portraits every few weeks since I paint and draw.
This is how I felt before we began…the day of the dead, fear of recurrence and death yet acceptance with simmering anger beneath.
The self portrait at the top right was one week after seeing her. Of course, I started an anti-anxiety medication which helped, but so did talking it out with someone who was non-judgemental and insightful when I couldn’t be. Medication may help take the edge of but grief is like a glacier, only the surface is affected and the magnitude underneath can well up at anytime.
The hardest part, is realizing I am alone and yet I am not. It is my struggle, but I my approach affects and impacts everyone I come into contact with. Isolation in a sea of family and friends and acquaintances. It is a never ending swim across the Atlantic, with rain and sharks and often sunshine through the storm clouds. It is not all pain and panic…there are beautiful moments, as well. My child sleeping next to me at night because it brings her peace to be near me. My mother hugging me goodbye as she leaves to take a caregiver break because I am ready to stand on my own for awhile. The joy of a new wig. The joy of forgetting I am bald for a few hours. The feel of a dog licking your head as you emerge from the pool because you are bald. Each little thing becomes so much more than a moment: it becomes a lifetime.