By: Sharon McLaughlin,MSW, RSW
I did not find a lump. There was nothing to feel. I noticed just a slight puckering in my skin that appeared on the side of my breast—something new that led me to follow up on an overdue annual mammogram.
The mammogram led to a diagnosis of stage II breast cancer.
My surgery took place on December 23. I was told that I didn't need chemotherapy, and considered myself lucky. However, several weeks later, when the pathology report came in, everything changed. My doctors recommended adjunct therapy. I would need chemo.
My New Year had begun.
At the time, I was employed as a social worker on a busy cancer ward, and I knew the language and the drill. I had seen the effects of cancer on individuals and their families. I had even coped with cancer in my own family. Now it was my turn to experience cancer, firsthand.
When I started chemo, my symptoms were classic. For several days after a treatment, first thing every morning, I would take a reading of my nausea level. Then, I would scan the fridge for something to eat—anything that might appeal to me and would stay down. I obsessed about food, but the pleasure of eating had vanished along with my taste buds. Nothing was palatable. Everything tasted metallic, except white rice.
I knew it was not uncommon to see different reactions among family members, friends, and children. Some children withdraw into themselves. Others become angry, fearful, and want to avoid the whole situation. So when my teen-aged daughter shouted, “Yeah, well I’m not going to take care of you when you’re sick,” I understood. She was afraid, and my illness would threaten her freedom. As a teen-age girl, being the center stage of any drama is quite natural; of course she didn’t want to share the stage with me! My youngest child was upset: “Mom never takes me to school any more.” Another was concerned about appearances: “Mom, why do you have to wear that hat? Can’t you wear a wig?” I understood my children’s struggles. At the ages of seven, 15, and 16, they each had their individual needs and worries about my illness. And as a single parent, I realized my diagnosis of cancer added to my children’s issues of loss and security, and each responded in her own way.
One day, when I was vomiting in the local grocery store parking lot, my daughter asked, “Mom, when I had cancer, did I throw up?” “Yes,” I said calmly. “Good,” she said. “If I stopped throwing up, then you will, too!” Yes, we had gone through cancer treatment many years before when my second daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at age three. She recovered, and so could I.
Sometimes my family or friends could not support me, mostly because they had their own fears or because they didn’t understand the complexity of the diagnosis, treatment, and medical system. They felt helpless and would say the wrong things. I felt I had to spend too much energy taking care of their feelings or explaining the treatment, so I began to withdraw.
It seemed as though my whole life, in those cold winter months, revolved around doctor’s appointments, rest, and fatigue. Reading was impossible. I couldn’t concentrate and didn’t have the energy to read. The TV news reported too many tragedies, and the regular programming seemed irrelevant. To make matters worse, all my friends were at work, my kids were at school, and I was isolated and alone. I had lost my hair, my health, and my professional identity.
Questions arose: What had I done to cause my cancer? Who could I talk to about my fears? But my deepest worry was one I could hardly admit to myself: Would I recover?
I had to reach out. I joined a support group. Although I had been part of these shared experiences in a professional capacity, now I could truly share the experience of cancer treatment—woman to woman. Women with breast cancer attend support groups for a number of reasons: to maintain self-esteem and confidence; to deal with loneliness and isolation; to develop a telephone network; to learn coping skills and stress management; to share success stories; and, most importantly, to normalize their experiences. Hearing the stories of other women, I knew that I was not alone. Open and honest discussions gave me the strength to develop a new understanding of the journey and many deep friendships.
In the past few years, I have talked with many women diagnosed with breast cancer. Last year, while attending a conference called “The Myths of Cancer,” I was struck by the most recent reports on the after-effects of chemotherapy on cognitive functions as experienced by many professional women. Every day, new information is available on the impact of the diagnosis on the lives of women and their work experiences. And new information brings us closer to answering the question: Why me? I had always wondered about the link between my cancer and my daughter’s. It wasn’t until recently that I saw the first research confirming that mothers of children with leukemia are at greater risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Today, I belong to a network of professional social workers who have had cancer. This network brings a whole new dimension to my work and echoes my experiences with the women’s support group that I participated in during my year of treatment. I encourage all professionals experiencing a diagnosis of cancer to reach out and to network—both personally and professionally. Professional networks allow for frank discussions about disclosure issues, secondary trauma, projection, the ability to integrate personal experience into everyday work with clients, and various ethical dilemmas that come up while working in oncology. But most of all, knowing that your experience is shared offers great comfort at a time when you need it most.
Sharon McLaughlin, MSW, RSW, is a Senior Clinical Social Worker, currently working overseas with Queensland Health. Her clinical and research interests are the promotion of wellness following the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and the impact of cancer on the family and individual coping styles. She has facilitated workshops for professionals and has also facilitated numerous support programs, having worked with inpatient and outpatient groups, volunteered with the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as being a founder of a local branch of Candlelighters Foundation, a support group for families with children with cancer. Sharon is a 13-year survivor of breast cancer.
This article is from the Spring 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Copyright 2010 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.