Not the Sweet 16 Birthday Present She Was Expecting…
By: Bonnie Haas
When people think of birthdays, they think of presents, balloons and cake. I was stunned when I got my breast cancer diagnosis – Stage 2 Invasive Lobular Carcinoma at age 42, on my daughter’s Sweet 16th birthday – not the present I wanted to give her. I found the lump myself and immediately made appointments with my gynecologist and a breast surgeon. I was relentless in my goal of getting an answer quickly. My surgeon recommended a lumpectomy, full axillary dissection, chemotherapy and radiation. I was terrified and overwhelmed at my diagnosis…it felt like being trapped in a nightmare and I was alone when I heard it. So many thoughts raced through my head…”Will I live through this? “Will I lose my hair”, “Will I see my children grow up?” “How am I going to handle this?” “I don’t have time for this!” Going through breast cancer was worse than a nightmare, but I still consider myself blessed, as not everyone survives breast cancer. I completed my final radiation treatment on my own 43rd birthday. I now see birthdays as a reminder of how precious life is.
Cancer affects every part of your life. It’s a devastating illness with endless complications and fallout. Telling my young children was incredibly difficult. My husband and children struggled through life during my surgeries and treatment. There was even a block of time when my daughter pretended I was invisible. The fear of potentially losing their mother – my husband, his wife – traumatized them. But together we somehow navigated the process and came out the other side. Although I face everything in my life with a positive attitude, there were many dark days and weeks as I navigated the surgeries and treatment. Whenever I felt myself losing my footing, I would walk around my home looking at photos of my children and that would remind me why I had to keep fighting. I had children I wanted to see grow up so I found my inner strength and the determination to get through it, no matter what. It was the struggle of a lifetime, but I had a strong will to survive.
Whether fighting cancer or any crisis in life, the thing to remember is that while we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. Because of the looming hair loss side effect, I prepared myself by purchasing a wig in advance. However, after losing all of my hair during my chemo treatment, I realized the wig just wasn’t me. Instead, I went with scarves that were way more comfortable and I color coordinated the scarves with my outfits (I also found a new respect for bald men).
Worrying about employment is another stress factor when faced with cancer, but as an employee of JFS Orlando, the Agency was patient when I had to take time off for the necessary surgery, treatment and recovery and the staff was supportive and many brought meals which were appreciated by my husband and children.
When you face a life threatening illness, others respond in different ways. Some panic and disappear, others go into denial and then there are the quiet few (my husband and a few close friends) who step up and stay by your side throughout. Unfortunately, people don’t always say appropriate things at a time like this. Instead of getting upset or angry about a rude or ignorant comment someone made, as time went on, I started to keep a list. I figured if I could find humor in it, it would make it easier to deal with. I called it my “Top 10 Things NOT to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer” list. Sadly, the list grew to over 30 comments, but instead of getting mad, it made me laugh. I still have the list today and keep it as a reminder of how it helped me process the comments in a healthier way.
To those with loved ones facing the disease, remember to be there when they need you, but respect the person going through it and allow them time and space to handle it their own way. Cards and notes are always appreciated, especially during treatment when phone calls sometimes seem too much to handle. Loved ones should be patient and understanding and remember that the focus must be on healing and treatment.
I try to be an inspiration to others by how I approach life and how I live my life and I will continue to offer strength and encouragement to others. Every time I hear about someone else facing a breast cancer diagnosis my heart breaks, knowing exactly how they feel…the fear, confusion, panic, uncertainty. I stay active in the “cancer community” and I offer support to anyone who is going through breast cancer. I hope to live long enough to see a cure found! Now a 9 year survivor, the best advice I can offer to anyone facing breast cancer is to stay hopeful and positive and make decisions based on what you are comfortable with and do what works for you. Don’t worry about what other people think. Reach out to those who love you and learn to say yes to any offers of help.
I remember asking my oncologist what date I use as my “survivor date”. I thought it started after I got through all of the surgeries, chemo and radiation treatments. But she said something I thought was profound at that moment. She said: “you are a survivor from the moment you are given your diagnosis.” So every year on my daughter’s birthday, I am reminded how blessed I am that I get to share another birthday with her. Oh, and that “invisible mommy” issue…we talked that out and she is a constant by my side for each and every breast cancer walk I participate in, never missing a single one.
If you, or someone you know, is in need of support,
please visit our partner agency’s, Sharsheret, website.