After a breast cancer diagnosis, you may be facing grief and an unknown future. For these women, choosing to be present with what they have has helped them find peace.
When my friend Mindy lay dying in her home, another friend, Emily, showed up every day to massage her tired body. The three of us were in the same support group — Mindy had been living with stage 4 ovarian cancer whereas Emily and I had been recovering from breast cancer treatment.
Our group is comprised of nine women. We still meet because we all face an unknown future.
Breast cancer can wake up anytime in our lives and bloom in other parts of the body. That’s when breast cancer becomes stage 4 (also known as metastatic), and the 5-year relative survival rate is 29%.
My friends and I have had to adjust our mindsets to find peace with this fact. So, while Emily confronted her potential future by touching, smelling, and gazing at Mindy’s body, Emily also expressed love and care. She felt honored to be present with her dying friend.
This is the attitude we have chosen. We walk this tightrope of gratitude in order to reclaim ourselves. It’s called Stoicism.
The word “stoic” has been misinterpreted in everyday language to target people who are unemotional and cold. But stoics appreciate the small things in life. They savor and enjoy each moment. Logic, reflection, focus, wisdom, and self-control are encouraged.
Stoics argue that external events such as illness and death are out of our control. Instead, we can choose to be present with what we have. If illness and death are viewed as negative occurrences, our psyche is harmed. But if illness and death are accepted as natural events in the cycle of life, peace is restored.
Of course, there are days when jealousy, fear, and anger consume us. These are natural emotions that must pass through our bodies in order to recalibrate, once again, to peace.
My nine cancer friends — especially Hayley, Cara, and Skye who have stage 4 breast cancer — are true Stoics.
Hayley was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in her lungs and spine when her daughters were 3 and 6 years old. Hayley had planned for a 3-year life expectancy, and she’s stunned to be alive 6 years later.
Recently, an old feeling has emerged: Hope. And while Hayley’s hope is guarded, she’s overjoyed to watch her girls grow up. Hayley understands she can’t plan for her future (there’s the knowledge that this disease can take a sinister turn and she could die within months); however, there’s a glimmer of restarting her career and saving for retirement.
If illness and death are viewed as negative occurrences, our psyche is harmed. But if illness and death are accepted as natural events in the cycle of life, peace is restored.
Whenever Hayley wishes she had her former life and job, she doesn’t allow those feelings to take root.
“Nobody chose metastatic cancer,” she says. “You have to do what you have to do. I’m so much happier when I focus on what I have. I’m grateful for my amazing kids, friends, family, and husband.” This is stoicism.
Cara was almost 5 years out from her breast cancer treatment when the lymph nodes on the side of her neck became swollen and tender. She feared the worst, and the worst came true: stage 4 breast cancer.
Now 4 months into this new diagnosis, Cara is still recalibrating her mindset and new normal. She doesn’t want to focus on her anger and sadness.
“It’s exhausting to cry every day,” she says. “It’s exhausting to hide that. And it’s exhausting to not hide it.”
She’s gained energy from this acceptance, from the concrete reality of her situation. Also, anti-anxiety medication helps. Cara feels grounded by the absence of magical thinking, so she’s conflicted by toxic positivity — how her friends say she’s a warrior, how they believe she will overcome this terminal disease.
“It’s never going away,” Cara says, even though she’s protective of their feelings. She no longer has the emotional energy to “fake it” as she did with her first breast cancer diagnosis when she repeated to everyone that everything was OK.
She now practices mindfulness and uses dark humor to cope. “I’m trying to get joy out of ordinary things while figuring out this new life,” she says.
Skye did everything to avoid dying from breast cancer as her mother had. She thought she caught it early at stage 0. But 3 years later, her breast cancer showed up in her liver and bones. Then her brain and thyroid. Now it resides underneath her clavicle where it cannot be treated. Thankfully, it’s behaving.
For over 4 years, Skye’s metastatic cancer was stable. She lived in the moment. She had a predictable cycle: stay grounded and unaffected for 6 to 8 weeks, become flooded by sorrow, organize a respite day and cancel plans, own the grief and “cry it out,” and reboot.
Skye was excited about an extended future when her cancer pivoted 3 months ago. “It was a slap in the face,” she says.
“I’m trying to get joy out of ordinary things while figuring out this new life.”
Skye had to switch to a new drug that’s much harder on her body. She now sits on her couch, reads, plays Solitaire, watches movies, and hosts visitors. She rarely cooks anymore. “It’s been harder for me to love every day, but I’m trying,” she says. “The angry and sad days are closer together now.”
Skye hasn’t yet sorted out her needs, and she’s trying to readjust her expectations and emotions. All Skye knows is that she wants to be around loved ones because they bring her joy. So does her doctor’s advice: “Be kind to your body and soul.”
Skye is envious of those who plan for retirement. She acknowledges she won’t be here to travel with her husband when he retires or to hold their grandchildren.
“Now I’m crying,” she texts.
“I’m crying, too,” I reply.
“No need. It’s a reality we deal with.”
Take a deep breath. Embrace the grief and allow it to pass through. Tomorrow will be a new day where the sun’s rays stretch through windows, birds soar across the yard, the magic of snowflakes sitting on blades of grass, and a mug of warm coffee that tastes delicious.
We are the Stoics.
Medically reviewed on February 10, 2023
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