In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
“Breathe.” “Just breathe.” If I had a dollar for every time someone told me to do this —while I anxiously waited for my biopsy results, had another round of MRI exams, before and after surgery, throughout the months-long treatment and the years I spent swallowing a daily dose of Tamoxifen — I’d have a down payment for a vacation home in Mexico.
Why do people feel like it’s okay to say this? The words seem so glib, like advice I’d expect to hear in the yoga classes I do not attend. “Just breathe” is such an over-used, go-to phrase like, she’s toxic or they have trauma. I don’t like these words; I don’t say them. They’re too simplistic. They gloss over the root of what is really going on. Most of all, being told to breathe, as though inhaling and exhaling isn’t an automatic part of my existence, is a platitude that feels condescending no matter how well-intentioned.
Struggling For Air
Ironically, a few months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I found myself unable to take deep breaths during spin and Cross Fit classes. Concerned, my GP booked me in to see a pulmonologist where I spent hours alternating between blowing into a tube and holding my breath. The verdict: I had excellent lung capacity. (Thank you, synchronized swimming!) With no reconciliation, I continued to huff and puff along until the cancerous lump in my right armpit was discovered, shedding light onto my respiratory issue. For me, for my body, not being able to breathe deeply while exercising was a sign that I had breast cancer. Trust me when I say, the only breathing I wanted to do in that moment, as I received my diagnosis, was into a brown paper bag.
Now that I’m almost at the four-year cancer-free mark, being told to breathe is a less frequent occurrence. I’m grateful to not hear it, especially when I’m feeling worried about an oncology appointment or the results from a mammogram or MRI. To be clear, I welcome these doctors’ visits and I want the testing. I would rather experience temporary anxiety than not have access to testing because someone, like a doctor or the experts in a 1980s study state that it may cause unnecessary mental strain and that I won’t be able to handle it. I can handle it. I’m strong and competent and I can cope with testing and my own emotions. It’s the platitudes I could do without.
Platitudes are what people say when they have no words or perhaps, when they want to appear emotionally superior. I’m not sure. Either way its not appreciated, wanted or good. What would be great is a cheat sheet filled with appropriate words to say to women like me, who experience breast cancer and it could be sold next to the Band-Aids and the Tylenol at Shoppers Drug Mart. The pro list would be typed in bold, black ink and would include statements like: this sucks, I’m here to listen, you don’t deserve this, I’d like to hold your hand. The cheat sheet would also have a list of banned sentiments inclusive of: you’ve got this, mind over matter, stay positive, you’re bigger than this, visualize yourself well, let’s take a minute, keep your eye on the big picture and, of course, my favourite, breathe.
This phantom positivity has no substance or place in my life. Not because I want to be sick and special and wallow in my unwanted cancer status. I don’t. I also don’t feel sorry for myself nor do I dwell on the negative. I am a fighter. I am a survivor. I deserve respect. But, I know how and when to be positive, as equally as I know how and when to be realistic.
My reality is that cancer forced me to lose autonomy over my body. The ongoing tests; the hideous, scratchy, blue hospital gowns; the huge, long needles; the biopsies; and the surgery that removed a fistful of my flesh, transformed me into a less-than person.
In part, I became just a body. One that stands naked from the waist up with my breasts squished between metal plates, gets strapped face down on a hard metal bed in a freezing room and is inserted into an MRI machine and instructed to not move for the next two hours.
A body that is pulled and pushed and contorted into uncomfortable positions while lying on my back as huge radiation machine twirl above me. A body that any medical professional can have a look at and a feel at any given time.
The other part treated me like a like no-body, just a number. Because breast cancer is just that common and the long line of doctors, nurses, radiation techs, oncology specialists, surgeons and more are just that busy that niceties, such as names and a genuine how are you feeling, aren’t exchanged. Questions aren’t always well received or answered. An unspoken but fine line exists, separating what the doctors want and what I want, reminiscent of my younger modelling days, when I literally wore a number on my chest as I stood among a sea of hundreds of other girls who looked exactly like me.
Then, there’s the aftermath when surgery and treatment is over with its joint stiffening, vagina drying, mind numbing, memory wiping, hot flash soaking and hormone-suppressing drugs that eradicated my day-to-day functionality. It was the I’m-really-alone time when I wasn’t sick enough to be in the hospital and I wasn’t healthy enough to have a life.
Currently, I’m in the forever-ness zone where breast cancer has claimed my breasts and skin, my energy, my collagen and youthfulness and my libido. In addition to a lifelong reality that cancer will forever be a part of my life, it has also given me extra pounds, marked me with radiation tattoos, blackened and hollowed my right armpit and the side of my right breast and left big and small scars as a permanent reminder that I will never be the same. I’m mostly okay with all of this. I’ve come to terms with my life being different now. The hardest part for me is that breast cancer has warped my dignity and sense of femininity. I don’t feel as competent, quick and sharp as I once was. I’m insecure about my sensuality and my ability to be intimate and to let loose and enjoy being in a relationship again. And “just breathing” isn’t the quick fix.
Only the hard work I continue to do on my thoughts and my perspective can support this new me. It doesn’t hurt to say thanks but no thanks to the “just breathe” sayers either. But I’ll always welcome a sentiment like: thanks for sharing, I’d love to see you, let’s go for a walk, want to vent, is it too early for a cocktail, have you seen your oncologist lately, any cancer updates, I’m bringing over dinner and you’re awesome. Because for me, that’s what true and authentic support sound like.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter
Learn about submitting your own patient story here.