Holding Your Breath Underwater

I’m a swimmer. Now don’t get me wrong, I won’t win any swimming competitions or ever be more than a recreational and devoted swimmer, but swimming centers me and calms me and gives me what meditation and yoga give to those who practice those disciplines. And there is something about the ability to breathe underwater that’s an awful lot like going through cancer treatment. First you have to take in a big breath, and then you let it out slowly underwater during your stroke, then repeat. You won’t drown if you learn how to breathe.

Ditto for getting through a diagnosis of breast cancer. From the minute I received the call from my gynecologist with my initial diagnosis, I held my breath. I wasn’t sure what would come next, other than that surgery was indicated and radiation was likely. I theoretically had “good cancer” that was eminently treatable. Ok, small bit of air let out… I had to wait a few weeks to see the surgeon, then had my first surgery, which seemed to go well. At my post-op appointment, my surgeon, a wonderful straight-shooting young woman, said “well, the news isn’t the best” and I learned that the cancer wasn’t so good, had spread to my lymph nodes, and that a second surgery was needed to get clean margins. Suck in a bit more air, continue to hold my breath…

As I am writing this, I am two surgeries down (two lumpectomies and lymph node removal), my port is installed, and chemo is about to begin. Theoretically, I will have three months of chemo, a break, then two months of radiation, then five-to-ten years of drug therapy.

I say “theoretically” because what I have learned is that at any point in this journey, you may have to suck in more air, or maybe if you are lucky, you can let a little out when you pass a checkpoint, but at no point do you get to relax. At best you have a plan for what is known today, and that plan could change based on what is known tomorrow. For someone like me — type A, love to plan ahead, have Christmas presents purchased by Thanksgiving — this is one of the hardest things about having cancer. It is a lesson in patience, trust, and living in the moment… stroke by stroke… breath by breath.

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