A Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Now What?
Rita Wilson on Life After Breast Cancer
In 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. This piece isn’t about that. It’s about after that. The aftermath. The P.S. (Post Surgery) to diagnosis and treatment. The A.D. to the B.C. (Before Cancer). We often assume that once you have had the surgery and treatment, you are fine. And hopefully you are. But I found that there were unexpected things that came along with having gone through something as frightening as having had cancer that I only heard about from my friends who’d had cancer too. I hope this will help women going through treatment or having to face going through it, or loving someone who is dealing with it, better understand what it’s like after the crisis is over.
I had initially been misdiagnosed and was told I didn’t have cancer. But a friend suggested that I get a second opinion on my pathology. I did, and was stunned to hear the words you never want to hear: “You have cancer.” I was playing Larry David’s wife in his hit Broadway play,Fish in the Dark, when I took off for my surgery. I asked my doctors how long it took before women usually returned to work. They said three weeks; I took four. One would think that doing a play, as opposed to a musical, would have been less demanding, as I had believed. Girl, it was so exhausting, all I could do was sleep all day. I felt like Snow White, waiting for Prince Charming to gently wake her up, or, as in my case, Prince Charming being the backstage speaker blaring, “This is your half-hour call.” I soon realized that women, no matter what they did for a living, must have more than three to four weeks off after a major surgery. It may seem to others that you are through the worst of it, but it takes real time for your body to heal.
I had tissue expanders, a sort of implant they put in during surgery that help you get ready for your permanent implants. They’re odd little rascals; hard to the touch, don’t really resemble breasts, and have a magnetic injection port, which allows them to be filled with saline to expand your skin (since all breast tissue has been removed and the skin that used to cover your breasts has been altered). Every week I would go to my doctor and he would inject the port with a large needle full of saline (surprisingly not painful), and the expanders would fill until my skin was about the size of the permanent implants that I would soon receive. The whole process takes a few months. Summer vacation was approaching and I wanted to look okay in a bathing suit. I am not complaining, but if you had painted eyes on my breasts they would have resembled some person with a lazy eye where you didn’t know where to look. But it wasn’t like I was going to be in St.-Tropez parading around topless, like I did in the ’80s. God, I hope there are pictures.
Then, vacation. Finally. Up until this moment, there was always something to do. Finish the play. Remove the drains. Get expanders filled. See doctors. FilmGirls. Plan the summer. Complete my album. Finally, on holiday, in the quiet of a hammock by the sea, in the absence of something “to do,” what I had just gone through hit me. And I was scared.
"Finally, on holiday, in the quiet of a hammock by the sea...what I had just gone through hit me. And I was scared."
This confused me. I was given a great prognosis. All was well. Why this fear? For me, it was because when you go through something frightening, it’s easier to be doing something than thinking about the “What ifs,” which are too iffy to confront. I was also confounded. I had already changed my diet and reduced alcohol consumption to three to five glasses of alcohol per week. Exercise every day was a must. I had the best doctors counseling me. But there were also people telling me that I had to take supplements and have an alkaline gut and do all sorts of nonmedical treatments. But, worst of all, I heard this: “Stress causes breast cancer.” No matter what I did to tell people that all my doctors assured me there is no biological connection between stress and breast cancer, this message was believed to be true. That somehow we women have caused our own breast cancer. Here I was, thinking about all of that. I was supposed to be resting. I couldn’t. I was anxious. I knew that I was going to have to get help for this when I got back, and that’s what I did.
I found a doctor who was a cognitive behavioral therapist and helped with anxiety. I learned mindfulness meditation, which taught me that acknowledging the anxiety, instead of being taken over by it, was a way to not be afraid of it. I learned to look at the other side of fear and anxiety. If I always thought the worst would happen, what would it be like if I imagined the best things happening? Wasn’t that just as valid a fantasy? After all, it was all in my head and I could choose to think whatever I wanted to think.
I also spoke with Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the neuroscientist at Stanford University, TED talk speaker, and author (WhyZebras Don’t Get Ulcers), as well as creator of the video courseStress and Your Body. I wanted to know once and for all if there was any connection between breast cancer and stress. Dr. Sapolsky wrote to me: “Yes, stress may make us imprudently do more of the behaviors that put us at risk for cancer. And stress may make it harder for us to be the ‘perfect’ patient when it comes to sticking to tough treatment regimes. But stress has remarkably little directly to do with the nuts and bolts biology of how cancer starts and progresses. All that health care professionals preaching otherwise are doing is blaming the victim—bad science, bad medicine, bad ethics.” I found this enormously helpful. Studies have shown that even people who experienced war-related stress did not have an increase in mortality. I wish this message were louder.
"Feeling feminine and sexy isn't about a bra or a cup size."
In the fall, I had my second surgery, in which my expanders were removed and my implants were “installed.” I like this word. It’s kind of like when you buy a new couch, and the new couch arrives and is “installed” by the movers. I almost wanted to tip my doctor. It was so great to be rid of the uncomfortable expanders. The exchange surgery was so easy compared with the first one. I felt very Hollywood, finally getting implants. Not long after that, I had lunch with two girlfriends who had also gone through breast cancer; we compared notes about treatment, expressed our gratitude, and after lunch retreated to the ladies’ room to show our new breasts to one another. I cannot imagine what other women thought while waiting for the restroom, hearing three women howling and saying things like: “Your areolas are stunning!” “Those are tattoos?” and “Your breasts look like a teenager. Can I feel them?” I can’t tell you how much it helped me to have a sisterhood of women who knew exactly what each of us had been through without having to explain any of it.
I sometimes miss my biological breasts. I liked them. I had them for a long time. I liked the way they looked and what they had been able to do. They nursed my babies. They helped define the opinion I had of my body. I look at old pictures of myself in a low-cut dress or bathing suit, and I think of them now as someone I used to know and cared about but who is now gone. But as the comedian (and breast cancer survivor) Tig Notaro says, referring to making fun of her flat chest for so many years, her breasts got fed up and “were trying to kill me.” You can’t really miss someone who wanted to take you out.
Bra shopping has been a process. I have tried NuBra, which sticks to your skin like industrial-grade Velcro but works surprisingly well. I have found relief in bras by Stella McCartney and Cosabella that don’t have underwires, which I find painful. And I have had a custom bra made to achieve some cleavage for gowns. Feeling feminine and sexy isn’t about a bra or a cup size or whether you have breast tissue or breast implants. It’s more internal. I feel it when I dance and sing and write music. I feel more like me than ever. And there is a release in that. Pun intended. Let ’em loose, ladies! So now, with these new buoyant breasts, I can, and sometimes do, go braless, which is very ’70s. And that is liberating in a whole new way.
Mindfulness meditation: UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, marc.ucla.edu.
Video: Rita Wilson Opens Up About Breast Cancer Diagnosis And Anxiety | TODAY
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