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I Wanted to Forget My Cancer Ever Happened — But Here’s Why I Keep Talking About It

Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

I’m your classic avoider. I loathe confrontation. I don’t handle drama well, and I avoid it at all costs.

But that changed last summer when my doctor said the scariest four words I’ve ever heard: “You have breast cancer.”

I was 35 and a mother of four children, all under the age of 10.  I was a part-time writer and speaker, but mostly a stay-at-home-mom who drove a minivan and wore my hair in a messy top-knot. Yes, I was a walking cliché.

If you’ve ever faced terrifying news, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that after hearing the word “cancer,” my world was rocked. The proverbial rug was pulled out from under me.

The following months were full of decisions, medical appointments, phone calls, and moments of extreme anxiety and desperate prayer. I was terrified.

The pink ribbon, it mocked me. I hated it.
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I was presented with two choices: a lumpectomy and many weeks or radiation or a bi-lateral mastectomy. I talked to my doctor, a few breast cancer survivors, prayed, and then I made my decision. I would have the mastectomy.

The hardest days weren’t before surgery. You see, surgery was a predictable end, a definitive. It was the one thing I could control.

The hardest days also were not immediately following surgery, when I spent 95 percent of the time in my bedroom, sleeping for hours on end, waking up in pain, and falling asleep in discomfort. It wasn’t the four surgical drains snaking out of my chest or my swollen, bruised chest.

Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

The hardest days were the months after, when I was allowed to mother my kids, pick up laundry baskets, write articles, and drive my minivan around town as if nothing had happened. It was the everyday that was terrifying. I was constantly questioning, was I really cancer-free? Would I live a long, healthy life? Or would the cancer creep back in, interrupt my life, and potentially kill me? Why did I get to say I “had cancer” while others were “having” cancer?

I knew I needed help. Anxiety medication, meditation, light exercise, and coffee with girlfriends wasn’t enough. I started going to counseling, telling her I was certain I had some version of PTSD.

I was so grateful for my second chance, yet I didn’t know how to live in this new body. My boobs were fake, my spirit was bruised, and my heart was heavy. I felt like I had fallen down a deep, dark hole, and I was slowly and shakily climbing out, with only a dim light above to tell me there was some sort of hope.

At first, I wanted nothing to do with the pink-ribbon gifts friends and family would bestow upon me. In fact, they made me angry. I wanted cancer to be a past-tense event, not an ongoing struggle. After all, I had made the hard choice to have my breasts removed. So how dare cancer dictate any single thing in my life going forward?

The pink ribbon, it mocked me. I hated it.

Then, something happened. Actually, a few somethings.

As I wrote about my cancer journey, releasing my experience to my social media followers and readers, I began receiving messages from women. One confessed she’d had a breast lump for well over a year, but she was too scared to go to the doctor. After reading my story right here on Babble, she made an appointment to see her gynecologist.

Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source: Ali Cummins Photography

Then a card came in the mail. A follower of mine disclosed that she had breast cancer. Would I pray for her?

Then last week, a phone call from a friend of a friend. She was just diagnosed with the same type of cancer I had. She had a million questions, and it was my honor to listen and encourage her.

Friends and followers alike let me know when their mammograms are, hoping for a word of encouragement. Each woman I’ve spoken with has chipped away at the wall I put up to protect myself from the trauma of cancer. I thought I was doing myself a favor by putting up walls, but it turns out, walls are barriers that not only shield us from feelings, but from people. People who need us.

So instead of running away from cancer, which was exhausting, I’m running back into it. It is quite uncomfortable, but it is beautiful.

I hate when people say that everything happens for a reason. They usually say it when there’s nothing else to say. However, I do believe that we can choose what we do with our pain. I’m choosing to run back into it, for as long as it takes, to bring other women the hope and healing that I was fortunate enough to experience.

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