• Baljit Khamba, ND, M.PH

Past, Present and Future Tensions


What is this sensation and feeling I have inside of me? One that forces hot tears of anger to release from my eyes, screams of frustration when I catch my hairless and pale reflection in the mirror? I was warned about this, the nurses, counsellors, volunteers and fellow warriors all told me that the emotions impact of having cancer will reveal themselves later, not necessarily when I'm in the thick of it all. They weren't kidding with that one!

I finally completed #8 of 8 of my chemotherapy treatments last week Tuesday. I'm now at the point where the symptoms of pain, loss of appetite and low energy are improving, while hot flashes are reaching an unbearable peak. I'm recouping and getting stronger to prepare for the next daunting task of having a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. However, while I was very diligent with all my cancer care, in the form of food, supplements, botanicals, medications, counselling, detailed oral care, exercise and yoga/meditation throughout chemotherapy now a week and 2 days later I find myself barely doing anything I had been doing for the last 16 weeks. Instead I'm left with all these fluctuating emotions knotted up within me like a pressure cooker on the brink of whistling its release of steam.

I tried to speak to James or my mom about it, but at this point any supportive words anyone says to me has me launched into a seething rage. My thoughts immediately spin into a negative spiral and I feel that I'm not being understood or heard. I'm torn between wanting to be left alone, but also wanting to collapse in the arms of my loved ones. I don't want to seem ungrateful for their love and support, but living a life of good health and then having that taken away is incredibly difficult to relate to, unless one has gone through it. So, the best and only way I know how to unpack this despair is through writing about it.

I can't pinpoint when it began, but I feel like the initial sparks of despair started around chemotherapy #7 of 8. At this point my oncology team was starting to prepare me for surgery, so I was being instructed on what to expect, particularly what my new breasts will look like, what implants they intend to use, and even acknowledging the loss of sensation in my breasts. Now that last one is what I've had a hard time working through. I'm going to go through painful surgery, lose of a part of my body and never feel it again? This was hard for me to digest. As such, I began thinking of all the times my breasts have played a role in my life.

My first thought went to the future and realizing that I won't be able to breastfeed. After watching friends and family breastfeed their children and in clinic helping teach new mothers how to establish a good latch, I was looking forward to breastfeeding our baby one day. I wanted to experience the joys and sorrows of going through breastfeeding. I know I can always obtain breastmilk from a milk bank, yet, I can't help but to mourn that loss. I weep with the indignation of it all, but when I speak about this, the only conclusion is "Yes, but at least you'll be alive for your children". That reason helps me get through most of the time, but lately it hasn't been.

Next I'm thrusted into the past, where I regret not having had my breasts checked earlier and where I remember my women friends and family playfully teasing me for my small breasts. I'm reminded of one particular story my best friend, Mantreh, and I would re-tell laughing the entire time. We were in university at the time and in our late teens or just barely in our twenties. Just on the brink of adulthood, we were learning together what it means to be a grown up. One of the things that made us grown ups was to wear bras that didn't come from the youth section. Mantreh used to work at a department store and would call me whenever there was a good sale. At that time we were eager to find a good bra that was affordable and gave us cleavage, as having one was a sign of being an adult. Having size A cup breasts, I'd never been able to fill out a bra well enough to allow for a nice cleavage to form. One morning Mantreh rang me and excitedly informed me that the department store is having a sale on these special and normally very expensive bras. These bras clipped in the front and had a lace string along the middle, that when pulled would cause the bra to cinch together and form a cleavage. Overjoyed with the thought of finally having that must-have cleavage, I told her I would meet her at the store and we'll try them on together.

I arrived at the store towards the end of Mantreh's shift, so that we could take our time trying these magical bras. Giddy with excitement, we grab our sizes and each head into a changing stall. We agreed to put the bras on, then step out of our stall and pull the strings together so that we could reveal our cleavages at the same time. I quickly changed into the bra and was happy with the fitting of it. It felt comfortable and already I could sense that my long desired change was finally going to happen. We stepped out of our stalls into the women's changing area together, faced each other, and on the count of 3 pulled the string. I first looked to Mantreh and was at awe with how grown up she looked now that she had a cleavage. Next, I looked down at myself and realized to my disappointment that nothing happened. I had a slight movement of my breasts coming together, but not enough to form anything. I thought the string was broken and tried pulling it a few more times to no avail. We burst out laughing and decided that neither of us were ready for such grown-up items just yet.

Moments like that bring me into the present and make me wonder if I took my breasts for granted. I do love all parts of my body, even the dimpled, lumpy and bumpy parts that have snuck in over the last few years. I finally felt like I had joyfully accepted the curves of my body and learned how to work with them instead of fighting to look like someone in the magazines who looked nothing like me. Now things will be different and not through my own choosing. I joke that I will now finally have the breasts that I've always wanted, or that my breasts will forever be perky. Most of the time I laugh at it, but lately that hasn't been working for me.

If I dig deep and search within myself for why my usual mirth and positive attitude hasn't been delivering its normal healing power, I feel that it stems from the feeling that cancer is itself a lonely beast. I don't know anyone in my immediate circle who has gone through breast cancer. My paternal grandmother passed away from breast cancer in India long before I ever knew her. Now although I'm told I look like her, act like her, obviously have her BRCA-1 genetic mutation, and have poor vision like she did, I never got the chance to speak with her about her experiences. She would be the only person who could appreciate the fears, rage and frustrations that are wrecking havoc within me. However, even as I write that I realize that in some way, I am also her second chance. I get to be the second chance at surviving and thriving

which life didn't afford her the opportunity to do. I want to honour and respect her memory by engaging in all the resources within me and through those around me. Others may not understand what I am going through, but I know spiritually that my grandmother does and I take a great deal of comfort in that. I'm uplifted by that thought and can feel my knots loosening around my chest. Soft tears of relief replace the fast flowing angry tears that I had when I first started writing this. So, goodbye boobies I'll prepare for your departure and hello to life, I plan to be here a long long time.

#vulnerability #MentalHealth #cancer #breastcancer #brca1 #mastectomy

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