I participate in a couple of social media breast cancer groups, and one thing I’ve been seeing over and over are stories of women whose co-workers, family and/or friends say things like “oh I know so and so went through this and she didn’t miss any work” or “so and so was back to normal after (fill in the blank).” I’ve read so many stories about women being bullied and made to feel weak. Just reading all of these makes the steam bubble up and spew out of my head. I’m sure there are people who when they have an illness might milk the sympathy card but this is not what I am talking about. My own coworkers have been lovely, supportive and kind so I’m lucky, at least nothing untoward was ever said to my face and if it was, I would probably do bodily violence.
The trauma caused to your body by a mastectomy is unimaginable and horrific and you cannot even fathom it unless you’ve gone through it. There are all kinds of tissue, muscle and nerve problems because they’ve been sliced through. This pain and discomfort hangs around for months and years. And if you’ve had reconstruction too you can just compound that pain. In my case, I went into chemotherapy four weeks later. My breast cancer compatriot at work who was going through chemo at the same time, had to have six rounds, while I had four. Her chemo cocktail was also slightly different from mine. There are many different types of breast cancer and they all come with varying treatments, including different types of chemo. A third woman at work who’d undergone chemo ahead of us didn’t miss any work at all, not a single day. I am going to say right here and now, that is NOT the norm. It’s great that she was able to do that and I would say she is a strong woman, but that does not mean that my compatriot and I were not as strong, by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t mean we weren’t able to just suck it up. Number one, not all chemotherapies are alike. Number two, not all human bodies react the same way to chemotherapy. There are so many contributing factors you can’t quantify. This leads me to number three which is do not ever tell someone going through chemo that “my friend so and so said it was a breeze.” Or that “my friend so and so was curled in the fetal position vomiting for three months.” I would say that I personally did better than some, and worse than others. I think my slow recovery had a lot to do with undergoing chemo, coming off the heels of a bilateral mastectomy. Radiation also causes fatigue, and in some people it’s extreme. Some people burn badly like I did. Others may get a mild sunburn. My hormone blocking pills cause me some substantial fatigue and joint stiffness. For other women, it can be severe. Women whose cancer was estrogen positive, which mine was, need to block the estrogen because it feeds the cancer. There is no standard answer for how much time you need to heal or to recover from cancer treatment.
I can only speak from my own experience but I worked as hard and as long as my body would allow and I am still not where I was before all this started. Please don’t judge any of my pink sisters (including me) based on our ability to bounce back from breast cancer treatment, because unless and until you’ve been there you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.