Insanely, illogically, and Thank-God-for-that-ingly, there is a silver lining to breast cancer. While the disease is devastating—on average, 13 Canadian women die from it every day—for many survivors, beating it isn’t just about saving one’s life, but finding the impetus to redefine it. Many survivors report a newfound appreciation for family, for living in the moment, for advocacy and community service—and for friendship.
After all, you can’t take on cancer by yourself. Meet three moms who helped one another get through the tough times. Breast cancer doesn’t define their friendship, but it provided the circumstances for their meeting.
While surviving cancer is what drew Barbara and Joan to the World Conference on Breast Cancer, it was language barriers that brought them together. The two strangers were each partnered with Yugoslavian women for the duration of the conference; Barbara’s partner spoke fluent English, while Joan’s did not. “As a result we all hung around together and right from the start, Joan and I clicked as friends”.
The two East Coast women had plenty in common. Both in their mid-30s when they were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, they each had mastectomies as part of their treatment, and both had opted for reconstructive surgery. More significantly, both were parenting young children at the time of their treatment. Barbara’s kids are now 18 and 12, and Joan’s are 18 and 16.
“[At the conference], we said we’d keep in touch, but you know how often people say that to each other, and you just don’t. But Joan followed through,” says Barbara. Joan and her husband travelled from Newfoundland., to visit Barbara and her then-husband in Nova Scotia. Their children became friends. “Joan became like a sister to me,” says Barbara.
A few years later, the duo added a third close friend to their circle. “We have a shared vision,” says Barbara of Ilse, whom she first met two years ago at the Women Alike Breast Cancer Retreat. “I liked her immediately,” says Barbara.
Ilse, of Halifax, had completed four rounds of chemo (and is currently taking Tamoxifen), and was a first-timer at the retreat. She recalls appreciating Barbara’s friendliness. “I didn’t know anyone there!”
The two spent the weekend as roomies, and kept in touch afterwards when Ilse started volunteering at Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia, where Barbara works as communications director. Because Ilse lives nearby, the two often pair up on volunteer committees, travel and through workshops they attend together. There’s a big gap between the ages of their kids (Ilse’s are adults), but Barbara says, “I think we get along because we’re alike in so many ways.”
But does forging friendships with people because they’ve survived the same disease as you dwell too heavily on the illness? Does it let breast cancer define who you are?
The reality is that breast cancer leaves an indelible mark on so many aspects of one’s life post-diagnosis that benefiting from the shared experience of others is invaluable in getting through diagnosis, treatment and beyond.
“Friends and family feel for you,” says Joan, “but they have no idea what it’s like to be told you have breast cancer. Only other breast cancer survivors would know what you’re going through; they can relate and share their experiences, fears, hopes and latest treatments. There’s a great deal of comfort in listening to a voice of experience.”
“Other survivors have an understanding of how and what you’re feeling,” agrees Ilse.
“It’s like finding sisters,” says Barbara. “It doesn’t matter what age they are. There’s an unspoken bond that’s very powerful. We just understand, without having to be specific like we do with other friends [who have not gone through cancer].”
Sadly, while a diagnosis of cancer can rally your true friends closer to you, in other cases, it may hasten the demise of other relationships. Barbara’s marriage fell apart. Ilse says she and more than one of her friends drifted apart, explaining, “some people have a hard time knowing what to say and do, so they do nothing and pull away.” She adds that, for the record, “You don’t have to say or do anything—just be there.”
Besides a shared experience of the physical manifestations of the disease and its treatment, other survivors can help with the emotional and lifestyle issues it engenders, says Virginia Yule, executive director of Toronto-based Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada, which runs peer support programs and offers information and education programs nationally.
Yule says that, like parenting, surviving breast cancer is a lifelong concern. “Developing breast cancer is somewhat like being pregnant,” she explains. “When you’re carrying the baby, you’re the centre of attention. The moment you deliver, the baby becomes the star and you’re cast in a supporting role. When you are newly diagnosed with breast cancer, there’s an immediate rallying of family and friends who offer support. As you go through treatment, there’s continuing attention paid to your well-being. Once treatment is finished, however, the assumption by many friends and family often is that the cancer is “over.’ It isn’t. It’s like the baby. It stays with you for a very long time, sometimes all your life. Although it’s no longer the focus of others’ attention, you are aware of its existence.”
“Someone who has also had cancer “gets’ it. They know that although your symptoms are gone, there’s the fear of re-occurrence. There are still days when you tire easily or are concerned about after-effects. This is when peer support is invaluable,” says Yule. “Another important thing that survivors can provide is advice on how to talk to your children about the changes you go through during treatment,” having experienced those difficult conversations firsthand.
Also, unlike some diseases where the collateral damage is hidden, breast cancer often robs women of one of the primary symbols of female desirability in our culture. “Losing a breast at a young age was a major blow,” says Barbara.
“Losing a breast is devastating. It’s part of being feminine and desirable,” adds Joan.
And an upbeat “Don’t worry, you look gorgeous!” from a well-intentioned friend (though, no doubt, better than nothing) doesn’t solve the problem of what to do. Discussions around reconstructive surgery, prosthetics, padded bras, sexual intimacy, and so on, are ones best had—perhaps over wine—with someone who’s been there herself.
Finally, the other thing about hooking up with other survivors is it’s a way for women to tap into their power—personal, economic and political—and to turn personal illness into a social movement.
Today, the pink ribbon is a ubiquitous symbol in the North American retail marketplace, the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer logo is a statement tee par excellence, and many workplaces do fundraising blitzkriegs come October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But the fact remains that it was only a generation ago that breast cancer was a source of shame and embarrassment. Women often didn’t know whom to go to for support. Many rural women, and immigrant women for whom English is unfamiliar, still lack access to support services. And in an age of economic uncertainty, government cutbacks and diminishing health services, it’s more important than ever that women have their experiences heard and keep breast cancer on the public agenda.
Breast cancer has a face, and when survivors find one another, form friendships, start peer support networks, and provide support while lobbying for funding for treatment and research, they keep the issue from becoming just a marketing cliché: pink frying pans and ballpoint pens.
“We’re passionate women, passionate about life and about making a difference,” says Barbara about the common ground she shares with her friends Joan and Ilse.
“We were women travelling the same journey,” says Joan. “We inspired and motivated each other. You find strength in those who know what you’ve been through, your hopes and fears. Friends like that keep you afloat.”
Surviving cancer “has made me a stronger person than I thought I ever could be,” says Ilse. “It’s made me appreciate my family, and not worry so much. To live life to the fullest,” says Ilse. Find people like this. Hold them close to you.
“When your treatment is finished, the cancer isn’t necessarily out of your life,” says Virginia Yule, executive director of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada. Regardless of what stage in your diagnosis, treatment or recovery you are in, tap into the powerful benefits of peer support.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer for Canadian women. In 2008, roughly 22,400 women will be diagnosed with it. While some risk factors are hereditary, others are tied to lifestyle, meaning yes: you can be pro-active about reducing your chances of getting breast cancer. Here’s how:
Use the breast cancer risk calculator at Australia’s National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre for a personalized risk assessment, as well as lifestyle tips targeted to your situation. You can find it at nbcc.org.au/risk. Additionally, early detection greatly improves your chances of survival. Check your breasts and see your doctor regularly. Alert your doctor if anything feels “off” — unexplained itchiness, scaliness, redness, new lumps and bumps, sudden discharge or puckering. And book a clinical exam every two or three years.