In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
Tell me if any of this rings a bell…
The Beginning: Get up, find a lump, feel confused, panic inside, see the doctor, see a specialist, get a mammogram, see an oncologist, have an ultrasound, get an MRI, biopsy the lump, do it all over again and again and again, receive a breast cancer diagnosis, feel in shock, go home, make a plan, fall into bed and don’t fall asleep.
Stage One: Get up, shower with special soap, zip-up your hoodie, forego underwear, pull on sweatpants, hug your support person, head to the hospital, put on a surgical gown, say a prayer, have surgery, wake up from surgery, get driven home, take pain meds, slowly, carefully crawl into bed and sleep fitfully.
Stage Two: Get up, eat breakfast, lie on the couch, wait for your oncologist to share your tumour’s Oncotype DX results, surf through Netflix, take a nap, wake up, eat soup, talk to your support person, have another nap, eat dinner, brush your teeth, take pain meds, watch Law & Order SVU and fall asleep after 15 minutes, let your support person help you to bed and have weird dreams.
Stage Three: Get up, pack your breakfast and a lunch, go to the office, eat a hardboiled egg, grab your purse, go to the hospital, have radiation and/or chemotherapy, go back to work, try to eat lunch, try to stay alert, try not to throw up, come home, take two Tylenol, try to remember to take work clothes off before falling into bed and sleeping like a rock.
Stage Four: Get up, feel dehydrated, drink three glasses of water, pop a Tamoxifen pill, head to work, have hourly hot flashes, drink more water, go to the bathroom every 45 minutes, eat salty Goldfish crackers instead of lunch, try not to fall asleep, go home, pop a second Tamoxifen pill, eat dinner, go to bed, wake up soaking wet in a pool of your own sweat, change the bed sheets and your pyjamas, go back to bed, fall asleep and repeat the night sweats/pyjama process three or four more times.
The Now: Get up, drink a cup of coffee, gulp back three glasses of water, smear face cream into the wrinkles you didn’t have when you went to bed last night, look at yourself in the mirror, take a deep breath, feel grateful for being here and try to stay calm and mentally strong. Tell yourself you can do this, because you can.
This is early-stage breast cancer life, albeit summed up into short paragraphs of list-like sentences. But it’s real and it’s true, at least it was and is for me.
Whether You’re at the Beginning, Stage Three or The Now, It’s All the Same
Back in the early days of my diagnosis, I was in survival mode, trying to absorb as much information about breast cancer as I could, make the best decisions for myself and to stay healthy and alive. Now that I’ve been in remission for almost two years, I’m more focused on my mental health. Neither the before period, or this new phase in my life has been or is easy, but both are manageable. Well, at least they are when I am realistic about my priorities and simplify what I want to accomplish each day, like being proactive about maintaining my doctors appointments, especially during the pandemic.
While my focus continually shifts, my long-term goal to achieve and be in topnotch health remains the same. Which means that I have to maintain and grow my faith in myself and in my body every single day in order to succeed. This is not an always-easy feat for me, so I rely on regular hits of motivation and inspiration to keep me going.
No, I don’t dress in yoga pants and squirrel away to a special meditation room where I sit silently, cross-legged and Zen out for half an hour. That’s not my style, plus I live in a 700-square foot condo with one door (the bathroom’s) and two very curious kittens who are either playing, sleeping or purring on top of me. (I love it.) Still, I’m routine about my self-care, psychotherapy practices, healthy food and long walks. I also make a point to tap into easy-to-access resources including, Instagram, books and music and so can you. Let me share how they benefit me.
Specifically, handles: @theedora and @merlinragdoll. Yup, these Instagram accounts feature cows and a cat and no, I haven’t completely lost my mind. Neither have their collective 419,000 followers. I love animals and their antics and expressions. Plus, the funny captions that the humans write for these two hook me every time. There’s just something fun and light, refreshing and full of life captured within each of their tiny image-filled squares. Taking five minutes to scroll through and look at them on my screen each day makes me smile and somehow, feel like life is simple again.
Tip: You don’t actually need to post your own pictures on Instagram to enjoy this social media platform. Simply set up your handle (mine is @adrianaermter), hit the magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the screen and scroll through the images until you find the ones you’d like to follow. Along with cows and cats, travel, interior design and architecture-based pages equally inspire me.
From the moment I was first diagnosed and right up until about a year after I started taking Tamoxifen, I couldn’t concentrate for any significant amount of time. And I really struggled with reading; my memory was too slippery to hold onto the words typed on each page. Pain, sleep, work, treatment and doctors appointments had already forced me to give up so much though, that I refused to let go of books. So I didn’t. That said, because I couldn’t consume a book a week anymore, I became super picky-pants about what I wanted to read, choosing only stories about real-life women who, against all odds, overcame enormous challenges like, religious freedom, genocidal war and terminal cancer. Books such as, Jenna Miscavige Hills’ Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos and Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted were hugely motivating. Their stories fuelled me with fire, spurred me to fight and opened my eyes to the light at the end of my dark tunnel.
Tip: Most public libraries have free apps, like Libby and OverDrive, where you can borrow their ebooks and audiobooks. If you’re having a hard time concentrating or even reading, go for the audiobooks. All you have to do is press play, close your eyes, listen and feel your spirit rise.
I came late to the music Playlist-game, but once I discovered how much fun it was to curate some of my favourite songs and albums into specific lists I was all in. And boy, did my Chill, Instrumental and Latin Playlists get a ton of airtime while commuting back and forth to work and to the hospital every day, as well as when I was laying on the couch too tired to do anything but be still and let my mind drift. I still depend on these beats to get me through a multitude of emotions. When I can’t sleep at night, because my body aches or I’m dripping in sweat yet freezing cold, The Cinematic Orchestra & The London Metropolitan Orchestra’s album The Crimson Wing soothes and relaxes my mind and my body. Often, during moments when I feel vulnerable and need a soft nudge, I’ll play a song from Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom. Hitting shuffle on my Latin Playlist pulls up artists such as, Elvis Crespo, Grupo Extra and Daddy Yankee, who never fail to put a swing in my step (even if it’s imaginary) and to make me feel alive and invincible.
Tip: If you’re old school like me and still subscribe to Bell, Telus or Rogers, you probably have music channels on your television that you can listen to including, Classical, Pop and Latin options. Alternately, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube Red and Amazon’s downloadable apps can do the thinking for you with their free and paid-for curated playlists.
Whichever, whatever you choose, know that these simple acts of the ordinary can make an extraordinary impact on your heart, mind and sense of self-worth.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter