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I Didn’t Tell People I Had Breast Cancer Until After My Mastectomy

Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

It was an incredibly hot July day when I breezed into the surgeon’s office to get the results of my breast biopsy, iced coffee in hand.

I wasn’t too worried. As a person with a history of benign breast lumps, I went into the appointment expecting the news that I had yet another lump. A nuance. An interruption.

But what happened was quite different than I had imagined.

The nurse offered up cheery small talk, handed me a gown, and asked me to change while I waited for the doctor. I slipped my shirt and bra off, put the gown on, and then pulled out my cell to occupy myself. I didn’t have to wait long.

The doctor came in, her smile tight. I knew something wasn’t right. Then she said, “I never want to tell women this, but your biopsy came back showing that you have breast cancer.”

Just like in the movies when someone receives bad news, I could only hear a muffled voice and everything went into slow motion. It was as if I was underwater, watching something happen above me.

I remember her drawing cartoon boobs on her iPad and saying big, scary words like chemotherapy, genetic testing, radiation, and mastectomy. She examined my breasts. She handed me glossy brochures with older women smiling gently on the front, like they were totally Zen about having cancer. I booked a follow-up appointment and was sent on my way.

I walked in as Rachel, mom of four, wife, and writer. I walked out as Rachel with breast cancer.

There were seven weeks between the day I was diagnosed and the day I had surgery. Seven excruciating weeks. During week one, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to share the news that I had breast cancer. Instead, I was going to attend appointments, consider my options, pray, and make decisions.

I chose to stay quiet for a few reasons. First, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Twelve years before, I was sick. Very, very sick. I had been to numerous appointments with five different medical professionals in which not one properly diagnosed me.

One day, I was breathless and exhausted. My husband tried and tried to call me, but I couldn’t pick up the phone. He rushed home from work to take me to the ER. It was then that I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease. I was in a state called DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis) in which my body was shutting down. If I would have waited even an hour to go to the ER, I probably would have died.

During my five-day hospital stay and in the weeks after, friends and family showed up at my doorstep or did things like mail me flowers, balloons, and cards filled with “get well” messages. The problem was, type 1 doesn’t have a cure. I wasn’t going to “get well” from the disease.

Though the gifts were meant to raise my spirits and encourage me, I felt they only mocked me. I knew I’d spend my entire life hooked up to an insulin pump, visiting doctors, and checking my blood sugar. I learned that pity makes me angry.

The last thing a cancer patient needs is more reasons to be angry. So when I learned I had a second disease, I chose to keep quiet. I didn’t want people whispering about me, sending me cards and flowers, or, ultimately, offering their opinions on what I should do.

I distinctly recalled one friend telling me several years ago that if she ever received a horrible diagnosis such as breast cancer, she’d just take supplements and practice yoga — that there was no way in hell she was going to go through chemotherapy. After all, chemo is toxic.

I was fighting such a major physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual battle, that I couldn’t fathom inviting more voices into my head. I needed to be as clear-minded as possible to make a decision the surgeons left up to me: to do a lumpectomy and radiation or choose a mastectomy.

For seven long weeks, I was like a robot on auto-pilot. I swam with my kids. I did chores. I ran errands. Then, I would slip into the bathroom and sob when my kids were watching a movie or eating lunch. There were two Rachels: the one who did all the mom duties and the one who had breast cancer and was terrified she was going to die.

I was so vulnerable that there was simply no way I could have dealt with the emotions of others as they processed my diagnosis. As we all know, when someone faces a tragic, life-altering situation, we have empathy for them, but we are also thankful it’s not us. I couldn’t be the person everyone felt sorry for. Call it pride. Call it selfish. I knew I was doing the right thing for me.

I did a lot of research and prayed continuously until I arrived at the decision to have a mastectomy. For the first time in many weeks, I felt like peace was within my grasp.

After my surgery, with a lengthy and difficult recovery ahead of me, I wrote and re-wrote (and re-wrote) a long social media post. The minute it went live, I felt as though a weight had been lifted off of me. I wasn’t worried about what people would say, because I had already made my choice and was living with it.

The point was, I was living.

Cancer didn’t win.

I have the most incredible support system. After my surgery, we had meals brought to my family for over six weeks straight. I was sent beautiful cards and gifted some fun and funky things that brought a smile to my face. One friend brought me a bouquet of pink carnations. They were so beautiful; a reminder of what I could blossom to be after so much pain.

I am so thankful for the season I let my cancer be all about me. I gave myself what I needed in my darkest days, but I’m also thankful that my cancer is no longer a secret.

It’s been 14 months since I’ve gone from a cancer patient to a cancer survivor. I’m still learning to cling to peace and to listen to that inner voice that tells me what I need. I am thankful for second chances and for all of my family and friends who celebrate with me.

Article Posted 2 months Ago
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