Personal Stories: Plans Change
Amy Morris recently sat down with us for our latest issue of HealthCare & You. She talked about how her breast cancer diagnosis turned her world upside down, and discussed the compassionate care the Adventist HealthCare team gave her. Now, take a deeper look into Amy’s breast cancer journey, in her own words.
“When you’re first diagnosed, it’s as if you’re in a very long, very dark hallway with thousands of other people. They all have cancer, too. You know you’re not the only one, but you’re trying to find your way out, and you’re on your own, and it’s very dark.”
My mom told me that.
When you have cancer, everyone tells you, “you’re not alone.” Technically, I suppose you’re not. You have a brilliant, skilled team looking out for you. Your friends, family, colleagues, even strangers are all cheering you on. Everyone wants to be part of your success, and there’s no question that you will be successful. It’s beautiful, empowering, and motivating. However, ultimately, you are the one flying solo in a lunar capsule, untethered and adrift, relying on science, faith, and love to bring you safely home. Your oncology team is Mission Control, your support system is the rest of the world holding its collective breath, praying for your return to terra firma.
These well-meaning, loving people will tell you to stay positive, which can be an (unintentionally) terrible thing to tell someone who has cancer. What, I can’t cry? I can’t be angry? Is being scared not allowed? Trust me, all of that is allowed, expected, and encouraged. Cry, scream, get it out of your system. During those dark times try to remember two things: First, you really are stronger than cancer. Second, this is temporary.
Cancer is mercurial. It shifts and changes and surprises you, never in a good way. If you make a plan or expect a specific outcome, you will be disappointed. While you’re in that space capsule, even small setbacks and disappointments will have a much bigger impact than the average, earth-bound healthy human can understand.
When I was first diagnosed on Nov. 1, 2018, my cancer seemed very vanilla, almost run-of-the-mill. Invasive ductile carcinoma, Stage One, caught very early. The radiologist recommended a lumpectomy and radiation; the whole nightmare would be behind me in a few months, perhaps by springtime.
An MRI illuminated not one, not two, but a cluster of tumors in my left breast. HR+, HER2+, multifocal, and aggressive. The doctors and my treatments started to move and change at neck-snapping speed. Within two weeks a port was implanted in my chest, I had another biopsy, and I was taking my first dose of chemotherapy.
Even as I was caught up in the whirlwind of blood tests, biopsies, and appointments, it was time to have some pretty hard conversations with my friends and family. I started with my employer. Then I told close friends. Then family. Every single one of those conversations started with “OK, I have something to tell you. Don’t be scared….”
While I now recognize that it wasn’t my place to tell someone else how to feel after hearing such frightening news (everyone has a right to their own feelings, and those feelings are valid), I wanted to reassure them that I’d be ok. I wanted to comfort them.
If you are a cancer patient, or someone with a life-altering diagnosis or chronic medical issues, you understand this: About 75% of the patient’s energy is taken up with trying to comfort other people. I still feel guilty for having cancer. I apologize a lot. I feel responsible when someone else has to work a double shift because I’m getting treatment that day. I hate worrying my friends and family. And then, when I hear of someone else’s diagnosis, I weep for her. I know what she’s about to go through. I feel guilty if her diagnosis is more dire than mine – how did I get so lucky? I feel fear if I hear about someone else’s cancer returning. Not just fear for her, but fear for me…and the guilt returns. I looked up my cancer online, which is a mistake. Online is where false hope and unnecessary fear resides. You know how people say “Olde World” maps would designate areas with “Here Be Monsters” to mark dangerous, unexplored territory? That’s what the Internet is for cancer patients.
Chemotherapy dominated Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday. Instead of big, raucous, happy gatherings, they were quiet days of recovery and reflection. Plans change, and it is ok. The universe is unfolding as it should.
This is the gift I have been given: An opportunity for quiet reflection, creating space for me to be genuinely grateful. My heart is full. I know who has my back. My family, friends, colleagues, doctors, my employer. They won’t let me fall. They won’t let me give up, even if I wanted to. My cup runneth over with an embarrassment of wealth and blessings. Would I have appreciated that – would I have even known it – had my plans not changed?
I am considered a “high risk/no tumor” patient. The “high-risk” part makes my blood run cold, but I don’t have any obvious signs of cancer now, so I live now, in this moment. I look forward to what may come – not just doctor appointments and treatments – but concerts, beach trips, holidays, birthdays, reunions.
I’m so lucky. I am. From the bottom of my heart I am so deeply grateful. If you can feel gratitude within the maelstrom of anger and fear after a diagnosis, you can find peace.