Keeping it Together Mentally for One’s Self w/ MBC: The Internal Self-Battle
I am a medical rarity – I am one of the women who got metastatic breast cancer (mBC) before the age of 40. I had a better chance of being struck by lightning than being diagnosed with mBC at age 23, but here I am. I had no family history and no genetic predisposition, but the cancer roulette wheel landed on me.
Despite the “good” fortune of living longer than medical statistics predict, like many mBC patients, I struggle keeping it together mentally because mBC takes away your future and abruptly ends your hopes and dreams.
I was diagnosed with mBC de novo in 2014 when I was 23 years old. At the time, I was living my dream. I had trained to be a ballet dancer from the time I was four. Now I was dancing with the Joffrey Concert Group in New York City. I was rehearsing and performing 6 days a week and in the best shape of my life. My whole world turned upside down with the words “You have breast cancer.” I wondered if I would ever dance again. I didn’t know how to respond — I just started crying uncontrollably.
Initially, I was in denial. My cancer responded very well to initial treatment and six months after treatment began, no active cancer was found in my body. I believed I had beaten cancer and could soon move back to New York City and resume my dance career. I had trouble accepting that I would need infusions every three weeks for the rest of my life. I wanted so hard to believe that the cancer had finally left my body. While I continued taking ballet class and performing on a free-lance basis, I soon realized that mBC and its treatments had taken a toll on my body. I would never again be able to dance like I did before my diagnosis.
Accepting that my life’s path had changed completely was very hard. I gradually transitioned into becoming an mBC advocate who also happened to be a ballet dancer. I met many wonderful people though my advocacy and this helped me cope with the sadness of losing my ballet career. However, this was a double-edged sword because seeing friends and acquaintances die from mBC was very upsetting.
After three years of scans showing no active disease, my world again turned upside down in May 2019. The cancer was again active in my sternum, spine, and hips and now it had spread to my femoral head. I immediately went into a mental funk where I was depressed and very emotional about everything. I cried pretty much every day. I had a number of advocacy events in June and July where I shared my story and the challenges mBC patients face. When I got to the parts about mBC, I would choke up and cry. This had never happened to me before during a speech. Thank goodness the sponsor and audience were very sympathetic but deep down, I knew something had to change. I was OK while with people, but when I went back to my room and was alone, I broke down crying.
I had resisted seeing a therapist because I am uncomfortable speaking to a stranger when they don’t really know how I’m feeling and haven’t been in my shoes. But now I thought maybe I needed a therapist. My mom knew my reluctance and suggested another option: an emotional support dog to keep me company while traveling to advocacy events and to keep my mind off my progression.
My family had always had dogs and we currently had three older Pomeranians. My mom asked if I wanted a Pomeranian puppy that could be trained as a support dog. Before she could make the call, the breeder we had gotten our other dogs from texted my mom about a female puppy she had available. We enthusiastically accepted and Momma Mia came to live with us in August.
It was love at first sight – I couldn’t stop smiling. I had a dog who loved me and wanted to make me happy. Momma Mia let me see life through a puppy’s eyes – the wonders of falling leaves; the excitement of finding a stick to carry around the yard; the fun of tearing apart a paper towel roll to find the treat inside; and the comfort of snuggling up in a soft blanket. Once again, I was able to see the beauty of life and live in the moment, just like dogs do.
I have another scan in January to see if my new treatment is working. While I am still apprehensive, it is reassuring to know that Momma Mia will be waiting to greet me with a wagging tail and a sweet kiss.