Friday, April 6, 2012

That Chipped Teacup Feeling: Life after Breast Cancer

Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This wasn't the “do something or die” kind of cancer that my friends Rachel and Kim went through last year. It wasn't even the “lump the size of a grapefruit” breast cancer my mom had removed after getting her first mammogram at age 78. It certainly wasn't the wildfire kind of breast cancer that killed my son's English teacher in high school, when my son and her daughter were both just sixteen years old.

Nope, my breast cancer was, thankfully, the “almost missed it” variety. I had a lumpectomy (described by my nurse as “the size of an orange”--why do they always use fruit metaphors?) Clear margins, no radiation or chemo. Nothing much to go through, by almost any medical standard. Why, then, was I so terrified?

I'd heard a lot about breast cancer—I am a journalist, after all, and I've known plenty of cancer survivors (and others who were less fortunate). But nobody told me about the fear. For several years after my lumpectomy, I felt as damaged as a chipped teacup. I worried that one more time through the dishwasher might shatter me completely.

As a mother whose youngest son was in kindergarten when I was first diagnosed, my biggest fear was that the cancer would return and kill me while my kids still needed me. I had other, lesser fears, too: losing what's left of my boobs, having my husband lose interest in me.

Gradually, though, I have somehow stopped being afraid. I had a couple of new scares, resulting in biopsies. My husband was diagnosed with diabetes, my stepsister with colon cancer, my mother with emphysema. Another good friend just found out that her son—the same age as my oldest boy—has lymphoma.

All of this was scary, but it also made me realize that each of us carries sleeping tigers inside us. That's what it feels like to me: that my cancer is this capricious jungle animal asleep inside me. It could wake at any moment, sharpen its claws, and slash my life to bits. Never mind feeling like a chipped teacup. Now I visualized a caged and potentially lethal animal inside me!

Somehow, though, this image has given me the strength to live without fear. There are some things you can't control in life—you can only accept that you, like anyone else, might experience disease, loss, grief, survival, death, surgery, whatever. We all go through something. Why worry about it until it happens? Let sleeping tigers lie, and get on with your life in the meantime.

After breast cancer, I became resolved to do things I'd always put off. I took a pottery class with my husband and finally made a solid commitment to write fiction and get it published. Our family traveled to England and Spain, and we bought a farmhouse on Prince Edward Island near my favorite beach. I bought a membership to AMC and started hiking in the White Mountains and joined a knitting group. I restored the old garden behind our house and, this summer, I'm going to try laying the paths through it myself. I'm also going to buy a new bicycle and map out some routes through my favorite small towns north of Boston.

No matter how short your life might be, or how deliciously long, why not cram in as much as you can? Sure, live in the moment, but glory in your past and plan for the future, too. Take on every adventure that appeals to you—and you're sure to embrace new opportunities to live with love, grace, humor, and compassion.


  1. WOnderful post Holly. Those mental images are actually really important in our mental and physical health...I'd add on to your tiger metaphor, that you are taming it, befriending it, and when you need it to, it will let you know it's there via intuition... so you can deal with it early. You have made great writing out of your brush with cancer. It's all truly grist for the mill of living an abundant life without regrets!

  2. Thanks so much for this post, Holly. Fear of one variety or another lurks inside most of us, whether it's fear for our health, the health of those we love, fear of failure, or even fear of the unknown!

    Your approach is spot on: live anyway. Make the choice to push through the fear and reach for your goals. Thanks so much for the reminder - I'd better go start cramming!

  3. : ) What wonderful advice.
    From time to time, I like to push myself outside my comfortable nest, stretch my wings and take flight. If I fall or need a perch, I know I have a safe place to land.
    Yes to cramming as much as you can into your life. Yes also to the balance between comfortable nest and open skies.
    By-the-by, I'm loving your book--Sleeping Tigers

  4. Hello, Toby, Gae-Lynn, and Leanne,

    Thank you so much for your supportive, inspiring comments--Leanne, your book has grabbed me from the start! Can't wait to finish it--probably this week. You and Toby should try each other's books!