Thriving, Part 3. Breast Cancer Forced Me To Jump Into The Abyss

Cynthia Bailey, MD|October 11, 2016

It is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this blog article is Part 3 of Dr. Bailey's Thriving Series, our 5-part series sharing Dr. Bailey's insights and personal experiences for how to go beyond surviving cancer, to thriving.

We also want to say THANK YOU TO ALL WHO DONATED AND SUPPORTED Dr. Bailey's Team in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer!! We walked this weekend on October 8th, had a great time, and were a top fundraising team - thanks to you! 

Thriving, Part 3 - Breast Cancer Forced Me to Jump Into the Abyss

I recognize that there are a few things in life that I’ve irrationally clung to, like a security blanket.  These are things that have made me feel safe and that have anchored me throughout my life.  One of those has been my career.  My career has defined my sense of self, given me self-worth, and also given me the financial ability to support myself “no matter what happens.” I’m a doctor, I’m proud to think that I’m good at it, and my skill puts food on the table and a roof over my family’s head no matter where we end up in the world.  It also connects me to my community. The relationships I’ve built with my patients are precious gifts.

When I got breast cancer, I had to let go of all of this.

I didn’t let go right away. Although, it actually didn't take long.  My diagnosis was so grave and my treatment so harrowing that I got a message from my “gut” that I needed to go on full medical leave from my practice.  Doing this also meant I was going to have to explain the situation to my patients, my community, and my blog readers.  I needed to admit that I had a very serious cancer.  For me, this was like jumping into the abyss, because I was proud of being a tough gal who takes care of others first.

When I first received the diagnosis I tried to keep working.  It was quickly apparent that I couldn’t keep it up.  I was an emotional train wreck, and this meant I wasn't able to also be a caregiver. In fact, my gut was telling me that I needed to marshall all of my energy and resources to fight my own illness, endure, and recover.  At first I was so scared to step out of what was secure and familiar that I kept trying to soldier on.

I got the “ah-ha” moment one day as I was finishing up an appointment with a woman.  I told her to come back in 2 months for a follow up, and I immediately felt the tears well up and run down my cheeks.  I had to admit that I didn’t know if I would be here in 2 months, that I had bad cancer, that I was starting chemo, and that I didn’t know how sick I would be during treatment.  Obviously, I couldn’t break down in tears at the end of every patient visit. I also had to admit to myself that I didn’t have the fight within me to advocate or care for my patients like I was used to doing.  I’ve always been a captain-of-the-ship type of doctor; a swashbuckler when it comes to their holistic dermatology medical care.  The breast cancer diagnosis had fully abducted the swashbuckling captain within me. I didn’t have the energy, focus, or fight in me to practice medicine.  I needed to step out of my practice - for the first time in my professional life - and I didn’t know if I was going to come back alive.

Admitting I needed to go on medical leave was huge and frightening. Not to mention that this was added to the existing realization of the cancer treatments that lay ahead.  Along with my own survival, I didn’t know if my medical pracitce would survive without me, or if I personally would survive financially.  I depend on my practice income, and my practice depends on me working.  The practice did not have enough savings to weather even a month of lost income.  What would happen to my amazing employees?  Who would take care of my patients?  Would anyone be there if I lived and returned to work?  How could we survive my medical leave? 

I think most of us face something like this in our lives, either personally, professionally, or both. When we think of stopping the life we know to take care of ourselves in a health crisis it’s like leaping off into an abyss - we know it’s the right decision, but we don't know how we are going to survive when we hit whatever lies below.

For me, the idea of not working in order to focus on my treatments was a jump into the abyss - and it was also the beginning of my first taste of lemonade.

Not working while I was in chemo allowed me to do what I needed to do in order to take impeccable care of myself.  This allowed my body to hold up to the hefty chemo doses required for my type of breast cancer (you can read more about this in Thriving, Part 2). My doctor’s hit my cancer hard. I took careful care of my body during treatments. My body survived well. The chemo was a perfect hit. There were no cancer cells found in my tissues after surgery - which means the chemo killed it all, and my chances for survival went up a lot!  I also never had any serious side effects from chemo – no infection, nausea, dehydration, serious numbness (a side effect that requires lowering the chemo dose); nothing that forced the doctors to alter my chemo schedule. Almost against the odds, the chemo worked perfectly.  I know that taking impeccable care of myself made this possible.  I’ll say more about exactly what that means in Parts 4 and 5.

My second scary jump into the abyss was admitting publicly to my local community and also my web readers that I had cancer.

We know that in past generations, having cancer was an embarrassment.  Families did not talk about it outside of the family.  Times have changed, but it’s still not easy to admit to having cancer. When you do people worry about you, feel sorry for you, pity you, and are glad to not be you.  Also, they start looking for signs of whether you are going to live or die.  This is understandable and normal. When we're on the outside looking in, we might look for a pasty and ill complexion, if they’ve lost weight, their eyes are sunken, they have low vitality, etc.  It’s normal.  It’s not because we are unkind, but rather because we are concerned and curious.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to be the person being scrutinized.  Which makes it tempting to keep it all a secret.

In spite of being scared of this, I told my story. Partly I had to logistically, and partly my gut told me it was the right thing for me to do.  I had no idea how right it was until later. 

At first I only told my office staff, close circle of friends, and immediate family.  As luck would have it, the weekend after I got the diagnosis I attended a wedding with my family - this was also right before I was scheduled to have the chemo port surgically implanted into my chest (scary!).  This wedding was for one of my daughter’s closest friends. Most of the guests were from our town, many were patients, others were friends and acquaintances.  This was certainly not the time to share my depressing news, so I didn’t.  But holding it in made me feel so alone.  My family felt that way too. We were holding this huge, frightening secret while outwardly acting like life was “normal.”  I don’t advocate tainting someone’s important and happy ooccasion - rather, the message for me in this experience was that the hiding strategy wasn’t going to work.  

Even after the wedding I wasn't ready for an abrupt and official announcement about my cancer. Rather, my transparency evolved through a series of decisions. First, my office staff and I needed to decide what to tell patients since I wasn’t available for appointments.  I had other doctors covering my practice, but patients were still going to want to know why I was unavailable for months.  My staff and I decided that telling the full story was best. I could see the speculation and rumors that might ensue otherwise. And, in my overwhelmed state I needed everything to be simpler, not more complicated. So we told the full truth - I had aggressive cancer and needed aggressive treatment; I had the BRCA gene and my treatment was going to be a long and drawn out process. 

What happened next was incredible. 

The cards of support started coming in.  They were so moving, healing, and spirit lifting.  People told me how much I mattered to them as their doctor.  They shared their memories.  They sent beautiful cards, emails, and letters - and it really did cheer me up.  I realized how much people cared and wanted to help.  It was a huge delicious drink of lemonade from the avalanche of lemons.

My second crossroads with openness was deciding whether or not to share my story with my blog readers and web customers. This meant writing about cancer on the web - where it lives permanently no matter what happens to me. I had gone silent on the blog during the first few months after my diagnosis.  I knew people would start noticing soon.  As with my medical office, I decided it was best to spill the beans and let everyone know why I was MIA.  So I did. The influx of support from my web readers was huge – again, spirit lifting and healing. 

Between web readers and patients, I would sit in the morning with my cup of green tea reading emails, cards, and blog comments – and I would cry.  Tears of joy.  People gave so much love and support - from across the world and across the street.  I realized how deeply we touch each other, even in this fast-paced world.  Intellectually, I knew people cared, but to feel it is entirely another thing.  That has to be physically healing! 

It became clear to me that being open about having cancer was the right decision for me.  What initially felt scary was now sweet, sustaining, and healing.  And the decision to do it had come from my gut.  I’m glad I listened.

My last jump into the abyss was letting go of control - for me this meant asking for, and allowing, people to help me.  After announcing that I had cancer, people started to offer support. And I actually accepted it.  This was huge.  This jump into the abyss was a big one for me, and has made my breast cancer experience sweeter than I could have ever imagined.  It’s also a longer story, and thus deserves its own focus. Stay tuned for Parts 4 and 5.

Stay tuned for more of Dr. Bailey’s series on Thriving With Breast Cancer - beyond surviving to thriving. 

When have you had to jump into the abyss? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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