One of the lessons I’m learning from my brush with breast cancer is all things are relative: Stage two cancer is favorable compared to stage four. The ninth day of the Adriamycin/Cytoxan cycle is a party compared to the days preceding it. Losing your breasts, hair, eyelashes and eyebrows is all right compared to losing your life.
I’ve discovered that the universal Law of Relativity, which tells us everything in our physical world is only made real by its relationship to something, can be used as a coping strategy. Here’s how: Just think it could be worse.
Catching on to this took a while.
After my bilateral mastectomy I couldn’t fathom anything more unpleasant than tissue expanders — the temporary brick-like sacks inserted under my pectoral muscles to stretch the breast skin and make room for permanent implants.
Every week for three weeks, my plastic surgeon, Dr. S, inflated the sacks to enormous proportions by injecting saline into them through a tiny valve.
The first time I saw the expansion syringes in Dr. S’s exam room I nearly passed out. They were lying on the counter, each as wide as a fist and as long as my husband’s forearm, filled with fluid to be shot into my chest.
“You are NOT putting all of that into these,” I said to Dr. S, pointing to my makeshift breasts.
He shook his head affirmative.
“You’re a sadist,” I yelled. Then I fanned myself with my hands and began hyperventilating.
Dr. S ignored my outburst and proceeded to knead my upper torso to locate the expanders’ valves. Every muscle in my body clenched. My eyeballs became cold behind my clamped lids.
“You’re going to have to get accustomed to the way these feel,” Dr. S said jiggling the expanders. “If you don’t, you’ll be very unhappy.”
I popped my eyes open and glared at him. It would be several months before my next breast surgery to replace the expanders with silicone implants. Beforehand, I had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. Maybe if Dr S had ever spent time under bags of cement he wouldn’t say such things. I fantasized about Dr. S treading water in a shark-infested ocean wearing a concrete-filled life jacket awaiting a rescue boat that was days away.
Moments after my expanders were ballooned, my skin stretched so tight I could barely move my arms to propel myself forward, I ambled out of the office convinced dinosaurs would roam again sooner than I could grow accustomed to the poundage of the boulders crushing my skeleton.
I told myself and anyone who’d listen I didn’t know how I’d live with the expanders. They hurt all the time. Plus they prevented me from sleeping because I could only lie on my back. You can imagine my state of crankiness.
However, once chemo commenced the burden of the expanders magically disappeared. Relative to the misery of Adriamycin and Cytoxan the pain in my chest no longer registered.
I’m reminded of this phenomenon as I apprehensively start radiation. It can’t possibly be more vile than chemo. And if by some horrible misfortune it is, I have to think, I could be treading water in a shark-infested ocean wearing a concrete-filled life jacket awaiting a rescue boat that’s days away.