I know what you’re thinking, why would I be writing about the five stages of grief when I’m a cancer survivor and not dealing with the death of a loved one or even trying to prepare for my own death? Because I don’t know how else to describe what I’ve gone through than to compare it to the stages of grief. It’s probably really hard for someone on the outside looking in to understand that I have lost a loved one – ME (before cancer)!
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. In this case, the old me. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling, but they are not stops on some linear timeline. They also aren’t items on a to-do list I get to cross off once I’ve gone through that stage because some of those stages return for another round. Some last a long time. Some are short. And sometimes I feel like I’m in every stage all at the same time.
Denial – I didn’t go through this stage in the beginning. As soon as I saw what happened with the tumor during the biopsy, I knew I had cancer. There was no denying it. Denial would come later. It would come after my mastectomy. The moment I was told I needed chemotherapy denial set in. In my mind, that was stupid! That’s what I’d given my boobs up for was so I wouldn’t have to go through treatment. They got all the cancer, so let me get back on with my life. Denial was in full swing, and it wasn’t pretty.
Anger – This has been a funny stage. I didn’t get angry when I was told I had cancer. I never screamed at God and asked Him why this was happening to me. No, anger would come later. First, as I struggled through the decision to go through chemo. But then anger came back ten times worse when I could no longer do my job. I didn’t realize how much of myself I identified with being a teacher. I didn’t know how badly it would hurt my psyche and my self-esteem and self-worth to have to say “I can’t physically do this right now.” What? Me! I’m a workaholic. I can put in eighteen hour days and feel good about it. No! This wasn’t fair! I depended on my job. I have medical bills that stack up. I have bills to pay just like most everyone else I know, and now I can’t work! No! Not fair! Not nice! Cancer sucks! My two younger sisters tested positive for the BRAC2 gene. Nooooo!!!! Don’t make them go through all of this too! I was so upset and so angry. I’m still here some days. I still get angry. I have to spend a lot of time talking to God about this. This was something I never expected to go through. It’s been tough.
Bargaining – I feel like my doctors keep doing this with me. If you have a mastectomy, you won’t have to go through treatment. Wrong! If you go through chemo, you’ll be done. Wrong! If you have a hysterectomy, you’ll be done. Wrong! If you take these antibiotics, the infection you have because of fighting cancer will go away BUT you need to be tested for stomach cancer before we know for sure. Really? When can I just be done? When can I just start living my new normal again? Because I refuse to accept going to the doctor at least ten times a month and having surgery every 90 days is my new normal. No! This isn’t a life. This is existing. I don’t like it.
Depression – Ugh! Who wants to admit to this dark, bleak hole? No one. But I’ve been here, left, came back, left, came back, left. This seems to be the revolving door stage. It’s a daunting place to be. Sometimes I know when I’m there. Sometimes others know but I don’t. And sometimes I don’t realized I’ve been living in the stage of depression until I’m moving on to a better place in life. It’s scary. It’s as serious as they make it all out to be. It’s troubling. I wish I could avoid the darkness forever, but I am thankful for the warning from my 2nd grade teacher. She told me to always seek God through the darkness, and I would always be able to find the light. So far, her words have kept me afloat through my darkest hours, and I know the valley of darkness is just steps away from the light as long as I keep walking.
Acceptance – This sounds like it should be the last stage, but it was actually the first stage I went through. I accepted my cancer diagnosis. I accepted being born with mutated genes. But I haven’t accepted this new me yet. I’m not to that stage yet. I’ll get there some day though.
I had hoped by now I’d be “done”, but that hasn’t been the case. I’m tired in a way I’ve never been tired before. Sleep isn’t the cure either. It’s like my body is still in a constant state of war, but I now no longer know what I am fighting. I feel like my body has actually gone to war with itself. Each day, I fight for more old me back, and each day I lose a little more ground. It’s frustrating!
So what? Where do I go from here? What’s the positive twist I can put on all this? Well, there’s so much to be thankful for in just knowing that I’m alive and in remission. I try to stay focused on that. And the reality is I should be going through all of these things. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. It’s how life really works. I have lost a lot! I look in the mirror at a stranger to the point I try to avoid mirrors as much as possible. I’ve lost my job and with it a piece of my identity and security. I’ve lost so much physically that it forever hurts. I’ve lost more, but I’m just not in a place where I can share it all. It’s my life, and the honest truth is it isn’t all pretty and I’m not always positive. I’ve had to struggle through some things, and it hasn’t always been easy. Yet there through it all, no matter what I’ve been through or how I’m feeling, there’s God with power so much greater than me that still whispers in my ear, “I have a plan, and it is good. Have faith my child. I will never leave you or forsake you.” And so, I lift my head a little higher and take another step away from the darkness and closer to the light.