Welcome to SURVIVING ON HOPE our monthly column from Support Volunteer Debbie Woodbury. Debbie blogs honestly about the emotional realities of life with cancer – loneliness, grief, anger, uncertainty – and the strategies that make surviving on hope possible – gratitude, support, humor, and joining with other survivors at her blog WhereWeGoNow.
In addition to her service as a CHN Support Volunteer, Debbie Woodbury is a patient educator with Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project and a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board at Overlook Medical Center. Debbie is a ten-year breast cancer survivor, a speaker, and the author of two books, You Can Thrive After Treatment and How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment.
In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain. Pliny the Elder
The first casualty of cancer is certainty.
Of course, I’m only speaking for myself. And, as someone who had gone through five years of miscarriages and infertility before cancer, I should have already known that life doesn’t always go the way you expect.
Still, I walked into the breast center 15 years later without a doubt I knew the drill: remove everything above the waist, put on a robe, let the technician flatten a breast between panes of glass, hold my breath, repeat, get dressed, leave and, a few days later, open the letter confirming all was well.
I made it to the leaving part, but the letter never came. Instead, a nurse from my gynecologist’s office called to tell me that my mammogram was “suspicious.”
At that exact point, I was no longer certain of anything and fell into cancer’s black hole.
Over the next four and a half months of appointments, tests, biopsies, phone calls, internet searches, and crying jags, I was desperate to find firm footing. At first, I clung to every word uttered by my medical team, believing that everything they told me was guaranteed.
But time after time my expectations proved false and I was forced to adapt to the unexpected. The “suspicious” mammogram that was probably nothing, turned into cancer. The lumpectomy and radiation I would probably need turned into a mastectomy. The phone call I was promised with the results of my biopsy didn’t come. The diagnosis of stage 0 breast cancer felt certain, until debate raged as to whether it was truly cancer or not.
It got to the point that I told myself I had no right to any expectations at all.
It’s hard to let go of certainty. It was especially hard once treatment finished and I expected to be “over” cancer. As I worked on letting go of that expectation, I had to ask myself “what is normal after cancer, anyway?” I had no easy answer, but realized the only certainty I could count on was to expect the unexpected and find the support I needed to work through the unknown.
Intellectually, I know anything can happen (or not, as was made painfully clear by the five years it took us to make a baby.) Despite the hard lessons I’ve learned from miscarriages, infertility and cancer, I still make plans and have expectations. I’m just not as surprised when things don’t go as planned.
I can’t say I’ve completely embraced uncertainty, but I have become a bit more mindful of accepting the present as it is. In truth, I’m just not shocked anymore when the unexpected happens because I’ve learned that the only certainty is that nothing is certain.
Has cancer made you more aware of uncertainty and the risk of having expectations?
Let’s talk about it.
Survival > Existence,