There is no sugarcoating the most bitter taste in your mouth; you cannot cliche away the pain. I am currently here, at the lowest point of my entire life.
February 3, 2023 marked three years post-breast cancer diagnosis, a day that fractured my sense of stability like thin ice on a frozen pond. A more immediate bomb has gone off in my life recently, pitting me to my lowest low: I filed for divorce from Ron on October 20, 2022. February is also the month I had my double mastectomy (2/26/20), and the month my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer (2/19/22). It’s been a tough month, but so have the last several.
The last four months have been exceptionally trying and painful; it has been a nightmare, really. Sixteen years we were together, most of which were amazing, now in the rear view mirror. I’m not going into details, but the universal themes of divorce permeate my life like the overwhelming cloud of Axe body spray from one of my middle school students. I will say it has been traumatic, stressful, dramatic, and difficult. There is so much more to say, but not here. I knew divorce was going to be tough, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve been through so far.
I am so lonely I can feel it in my body; heavy legs and limbs lumber about, keeping moving by sheer stubbornness. I am disciplined, so I continue taking good care of myself with exercise and time outside, but it’s not enough to outweigh the colossal shift that has upended my life. I am in affection withdrawal, missing the simple touch of another human being. The house is crushingly quiet. I mourn my old husband, our old life, all the plans we had for the future. I go snowboarding alone, missing the man I used to share that passion with. Going from having someone around all the time to no one is quite an adjustment. I don’t like being single.
I am cleaning all the time, because no one else is going to if I don’t. It’s also a good distraction. It doesn’t change the fact that I have no one to talk to at the end of the day, to share my evening with. It has been intensely sad and lonely. Though it was a change that needed to happen, I wish things hadn’t ended as they had.
On top of this bombshell in my life, I am coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, March 7, 2022. That has been a gargantuan void I have not been able to fill even in the slightest since his passing; an uprooting of my sense of stability and self. He was the person in my life who I feel understood me the best, who really saw me and got me for who I was and appreciated it. We were also a lot alike, so that connection came naturally with lots of shared interests and personality traits. His death has left me feeling lost at sea, invisible in the way you feel when someone who loved you is no longer there. My dad was so many things to me, but above all he was a kindred spirit, my best friend, someone I cherished spending time with. Though we know our parents are going to die someday, you want them to live as long as they can, of course, and seventy-one still feels too soon for him to go.
Divorcing from Ron is similar in the sense of losing a man who loved and took care of me, and whom I thought would be in my life for some infinite horizon. In one year, I’ve lost the two most important men in my life. The men I used to go snowboarding and wakeboarding with; who I used to share dinners at our favorite restaurants with; who I could talk for hours about anything and everything with; who took care of me through cancer treatment. It is an overwhelming loss.
Add this to my breast cancer recovery, and I feel as though I can’t get a break. I should preface this by saying that life is a roller coaster, with some days better than others; there are surely moments of joy and peace amidst this chaos and loss. But overall, it feels like the hits just keep coming. My mortgage is due to rise by maybe $300/month as my homeowner’s insurance has skyrocketed from the CZU Lightning Complex fire of 2020. I have a divorce hearing in a couple of months, when I might get some sense of how badly the settlement is going to hurt. I’m the one with everything to lose – my pension, my house, my car even. I never thought I would need a prenuptial agreement as a teacher.
I feel like I was supposed to die when I got cancer, and like the Earth is trying to push me off ever since. I’m not superstitious, but it sometimes feels like everything is against me post cancer – my dad dying, my marriage falling apart, feeling angry and not like myself, getting in financial debt. I know that sounds ungrateful. There have been a lot of positive times, of course, but the gravity of the challenging times can make those moments of levity feel like light years away.
I continue to struggle with Tamoxifen. It is awful. I feel irritable almost all of the time. My anger is more like rage, and temper as short as mouse hair. I am not my old self. I still struggle with joint pain from the medication, as well as thinning hair, lowering voice, wrinkling skin, and a slew of other changes. My thermoregulation is still shot; I am either super hot and sweaty, or cold, rarely at a happy medium. It is linked to depression, too. I wonder how much of my emotional suffering right now is caused by it, though I am wise enough to know it’s not the sole culprit.
My lymphedema in my left trunk and upper arm keep me stretching daily; some days are worse than others. Add in radiation fibrosis, and I have constant tightness in my left shoulder and chest. I stretch all the time, do lymphatic massage on myself, exercise, and do yoga to help. I had surgery eight weeks ago to get new breast implants, after having my old ones removed in May 2022. The old ones were defective – crooked, rippling, uneven, and heavy enough to bring back my TMJ and neck pain I used to have with my old real breasts. Having empty expanders (temporary implants) in my chest was actually a nice break, as they weighed so little, and I felt my neck and jaw pain all but dissipate. My new implants are smaller than the old ones, and so far seem to be settling in okay, though they will never be breasts, will never feel like them, and never look as good. It is accepted in the breast cancer community that post-mastectomy, and especially post-radiation, you’ll never have ideal cosmetic results.
Then, there’s the fear of recurrence. I don’t think about it all the time, but every time I don’t feel well, I worry my cancer is back to kill me. Like yesterday, I got totally sick at work – throwing up, hit me like a train. I had to go home in the middle of the day. Though it was likely food poisoning from eating unrefrigerated leftovers (after a 3-day power outage), it immediately made me worry about stomach cancer. If my cancer does come back, it most certainly will kill me, so those are the terms I have to reckon with. I try to set it down and remove it from the forefront of my mind, but it lurks in the background like a shadow.
Physically, I just don’t feel as strong as I used to be. Duh. I am almost always tired or fatigued, though I naturally have a lot of energy. I wish I could take several months off of work and just recuperate. My endurance isn’t what it was when exercising; I just take a lot more breaks. Radiation fibrosis to my left lung really affected my respiratory function, though it has improved over time. I definitely don’t feel as attractive without natural breasts, which leads to its own set of self-image and self-esteem issues. I am reminded constantly of all that I’ve lost, physically and emotionally.
One thing I am good at? Discipline. I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking care of myself, so I continue to go through the motions, no matter how I’m feeling. I journal regularly, play guitar, dance in my living room, exercise everyday, do yoga, practice meditation and gratitude, eat healthy, drink lots of water…but even all of that doesn’t fix hard times.
That’s what I’m here to say: you can do everything “right”, and still suffer, just like how I got breast cancer after living a healthy life. We are not impervious to life’s low points simply by being disciplined, though I do believe it is helping me get through it.
I continue to get outside, to get outside of myself, and into the infinitely beautiful world that persists, with or without me. I am grateful for what I have, though I know I risk losing all I’ve worked so hard for. All those mornings I got up early and went to work over the last eighteen years of my life as a teacher, all in jeopardy because of this divorce. Time will tell.
This is the lowest I’ve ever been in my life. But it’s not lost on me how lucky I was to experience the highest highs before all of this. I had sixteen years of an all around incredible relationship with Ron, where I felt I could truly be myself and was loved; where we shared amazing passion for not just life, but each other; undeniable chemistry; so many fun adventures snowboarding, surfing, mountain biking, exploring together. I rode those highs with a beaming smile on my face; I posted all those pictures to my social media to brag to the world about how happy we were. Because we were, and that won’t change, no matter how different things are now.
Life is a dance between the highest highs and the lowest lows, but I love it all the same. I am reaching out to family and friends for support. I have an immense lust for life, and though I feel a little beat down right now, I am trying to keep the faith.
Faith, my “One Word Challenge” for 2023. I chose the word faith because it’s something I’ve always struggled with; I’ve never had much of it. I’ve written about this before, how I met a professor in Spain when I was 17 who told me faith would be my biggest challenge in life. He was right. Every time I go through adversity, my default mode is fatalistic, nihilistic, and faithless. Right now, I feel like the best years of my life are behind me, that it’s all downhill from here. That is fatalistic. I am trying to lean into faith this year, though I’m not there yet. Faith looks like feeling calm, cool, and collected no matter what life throws at you; like trusting the future, regardless of circumstances. Faith feels like believing I’ll experience true love again, perhaps even better than before. I am working on it, making progress in fits and starts.
One thing I know for sure? I’ve been through so much, and have done a fairly decent job thus far of coping with it all. I am strong, and I have been through too much not to trust myself to persevere. Finding perseverance? Perhaps now, it’s a matter of manifesting perseverance. I continue forward, one foot in front of the other, sometimes with a smile, sometimes begrudgingly, but I keep moving. I love life, and believe it is an awesome opportunity that should not be wasted. Faith may be my challenge, but tenacity is my word.
4 thoughts on “Three Years Post Breast Cancer Diagnosis”
Hi Katrin, so sorry to hear that you’re getting divorced. I started reading your blog back when I lived in Boulder Creek several years ago and I know how much your marriage meant to you.
With everything that’s happened in your life in the last few years depression is just about a given. I’ve been thru a lot of the same things and it’s brutal. There’s nothing that can really be said that doesn’t sound trite but I believe you will come out the other side stronger. It just takes a long effing time.
If you want a hiking buddy, I’m still in the area and I’m a good listener. s t m e a n s@gmail
Best of luck,
Thank you so much; as you said, after everything, depression is just about inevitable. It’s tough! Time…sweet time will help
I can’t tell you how sad I felt reading this. I know it sounds trite, but have you considered psychotherapy? It’s not the answer for everyone but it might help a little.
Thank you; it’s been awful. And yes, I’m in therapy as a result. Kind of helping but I think only time will help