As a breast cancer survivor I have been through a lot of trials and tribulations, so many they are not truly quantifiable. Much of my story is familiar to others’ breast cancer journeys. Diagnosis, followed by treatment- which for me was bilateral mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, radiation, breast reconstruction, and maintenance drugs. But our stories do not actually start there, they start before that, when we were living our lives and going about our business unaware of what was to come.
I see a lot of women saying they want nothing but their old lives back, where they were blissfully healthy and content. I am here to tell you I actually don’t. It wasn’t horrible, but I wasn’t living my best life. I was very overweight. I was miserable in my job situation. I was not the best wife and mother I could be. I was drinking a lot of alcohol every Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights and holidays. It made me gain weight and made me loathe myself. It hurt my family. I had battled alcoholism and eating disorders a couple of times in my life but I was able to kid myself that barely hanging on to mediocrity was enough.
I never missed work, I never drank and drove, I never day-drank. I was a fun drunk and I loved everything about drinking (minus the aforementioned bad stuff). I was literally every hilarious meme that glorified and satirized drinking. In retrospect I feel like it would have been better if I had “hit rock bottom” with some kind of life altering event, like a DUI or alcohol poisoning like you see on the TV show Intervention
. At the time of my breast cancer diagnosis I was a high functioning alcoholic.
In April of 2015, a couple of days before my husband was due to travel to Nepal for three weeks, I noticed my left breast had a large firm area behind the nipple, and the nipple itself was inverted. After an ultrasound, mammogram, and biopsy it was official, I had breast cancer, which would ultimately be diagnosed as Stage III, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.
What I usually did after a hard day at work or a stressful event, was drink. Oh how I wanted to drink now, lots and lots of vodka that would numb me from head to toe and make me believe everything would be okay. With my husband out of town it would be easy to just numb the pain and fear, and pretend this shit show wasn’t actually happening. I would die from this, I was certain. God was punishing me for all the times I vowed to quit drinking and straighten out my life and didn’t. I’m not exactly sure what put me back on the wagon that day, but I said to myself “I cannot drink today”
. Today, I must put on a brave face and carry on for my daughter who was 12 at the time. I needed to have a clear head and to make phone calls. I had to do something besides imagining my funeral and my motherless daughter.
Gathering up every scrap of gumption I could muster, over the next few days I made phone calls and doctor appointments. I began googling risk factors for breast cancer. My mother had been diagnosed with it and I knew that was a risk. But in evaluating my lifestyle, my overindulgence in food and alcohol were also big risk factors. And stress. I was stressed at work beyond belief. I am not saying just being a fluffy drunk made me get breast cancer because healthy exercising vegans get breast cancer too, but it was likely a contributing factor and was not helping me live my best life. The prolonged alcohol consumption could have caused me to lose my family, my job, and ultimately my life. My oncologist was very frank with me. He told me I could not drink anymore, at all. He told me that the most recent research shows that, women with estrogen positive cancer who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer than those who do not drink at all, and further - the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10% for each additional drink.
I’m not sure it mattered when he told me this, as I had already decided to stop. I knew I couldn’t promise forever but I could promise myself one day at a time. I began thanking God for each new day of sobriety. My work responsibilities changed for the better and my stress was alleviated. Weight began to come off after surgery and chemotherapy. I know now that there was no way in hell I could’ve battled cancer while still drinking. It would not have been a battle at all.
While fighting the cancer in my breast I would’ve been pickling my liver. Honestly not drinking during treatment was not hard. You feel like shit- the kind where nothing will make you feel better and the thought of alcohol is disgusting. I was so dehydrated during chemotherapy and radiation I could not even fathom adding liquor into the mix. But after treatment ended, the anxiety and panic of recurrence crept back in.
No longer in kick-ass warrior mode, the feelings of hopelessness that I used to numb with alcohol returned. My holidays before cancer were typically riddled with alcohol. It was difficult, remembering that warm blanket feeling of the buzz slowly creeping over me, curing all ills if even for just a short time. I realized then that this actually was going to be an everyday challenge, but I was up for it, my life depended on it. So if you ask me if I ever yearn for my old life before cancer I will say, no not really. I am healthier (albeit I still have weight to lose) and happier. I have amazing new friends I would not have met had I not been diagnosed with breast cancer. Maybe I would’ve gotten sober eventually had cancer not happened, but maybe not. Cancer is not a gift but sobriety is, and I am still working every day to hold onto it.
Have you experienced something similar along your journey with cancer? Share your experience in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of the author.