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After 75 years of extraordinarily good health, I have recently had a series of health issues which appear to be unrelated but which I suspect are connected in some way that I don’t understand. As an ACA, I hate mystery. I hate not knowing. But my intuition tells me that my body is in some kind of turmoil and is trying desperately to get my attention. One message is learning how to take care of myself, ask for help, be patient and trust—things I didn’t learn in childhood.

The most serious of these health incidents was that I was recently diagnosed with cancer in my left breast. I was told it was quite small, stage 1 and slow growing, Grade 1. Nonetheless it is cancer— the same disease that claimed my mother’s life 45 years ago. My inner family reacted to the news with overwhelm and grief. My inner five-year-old is afraid she’ll lose her mother-- not necessarily to death-- but that her mother’s attention will be spent on healing from her disease and its treatment and not on tending to the inner child. My inner teenager is simply angry. She can’t believe after doing genetic testing and learning that I have no genes associated with breast cancer that I got this disease anyway.

And then it turned out that there was breast cancer in my right breast as well, even though after mammogram it was ruled to be simply a cyst. After surgery, one tumor turned out to be twice the size they expected, and a lymph node was unexpectedly positive for breast cancer. So, more surgery was ordered.

This diagnosis and its subsequent treatment have resulted in triggering many of my laundry list traits. First, I tried to protect myself by keeping the news very private. So initially I told only my husband, my three adult daughters, and my two fellow travelers.

After a few days of “being strong” and minimizing (after all, it could be worse, they caught it early, aren’t I “lucky” and “fortunate”), I recognized that expecting my family to be my major support was foolish because they have their own feelings to manage. I had a bit of a meltdown and finally asked for what I needed: “just ask me how I’m feeling and take tender care of me.” Another Laundry List trait—it is extremely hard for me to ask for help.

It's also hard to decide what kind of help I need. What could I do to take care of myself during this time, characterized by anxiety and waiting for tests, surgery, and outcomes? I began to realize that there is no one point where everything will be resolved and that I need to make peace with an unfolding process even though as an adult child I want answers and I want resolution. After surgery, there will be more treatment. And in years to come, I will always be under special scrutiny for recurrence. So, acceptance is called for.

My own feelings alternate between a kind of fatalistic acceptance, to being angry, to feeling sad and grief stricken over my mother‘s death, to being annoyed with other people’s reactions, to shutting down emotionally altogether, and to catastrophizing.

The laundry list trait of denial can be huge. So, each day I hope to live somewhere between minimizing and catastrophizing.

People ask what can I do to support? Most of the time, I’m at a loss, but in general my answer is: ‘simply ask me how I feel and then listen with compassion to whatever I have to say.’ I understand it’s awkward. But I don’t want to hear other people’s cancer stories. I don’t want to hear the bright side or be “cheered up.” I simply need to be heard, which is the longing of all ACA‘s. 

This diagnosis has also required me to learn how to wait and to develop trust. I believe I’ve chosen good doctors. Fortunately, I have a nurse I can call to talk to and ask questions. Initially, I rejected the idea of using any of the cancer support systems available through my local hospital because I didn’t want to be with the “really sick” cancer patients. I recognize that is minimizing and that I can explore those resources and find supports that may be very helpful to me. But it’s scary.

Finally, I want to use humor as my helper and not a shield against reality. I do see some humor in my cancer treatment. One example: when the technicians do a biopsy, they ink a large blue X on the breast to be biopsied. They do the same thing with an upcoming surgery. However, as I need surgery on both breasts, putting an X on both of them would be useless. Would they ink an X and an O? Or maybe an A and a B? 

I’m not grateful I got cancer. I will never be grateful for it. But I can see cancer as an object lesson that has forced me to confront and heal some of my laundry list traits. And I can be grateful for that.


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