Live with her, Part 2 - what lies beneath

Most women are lucky when it comes to the cruel roulette game that is breast cancer; one out of eight in the U.S., tragically, are not and WILL be diagnosed. One of eight...look around the coffee shop, at work, etc. and count off every 8th woman. (But don’t necessarily count her out.) 

The wheel came to a halt on Jamie’s number in 2001. But she did a year of treatment—chemo, radiation & surgeries—and put her head into a focused health and exercise regimen (amazingly, women diagnosed who work out daily can beat the odds by 50%...spin THAT around your head) to come out on the other side, her son Jack was born, etc. You probably know her story. So many years later, you would think all is good, especially having fought recurrence and not developing other types of cancer. 

As mentioned in “Live with her, part 1,” the physical/cosmetic aftermath of fighting the disease is traumatic. Some women choose not to reconstruct. Some women, though they may wish to do so, are not physically eligible for full reconstruction. Seems the roulette wheel saved one more tick for Jamie, one of the many ineligible.  

Despite 200% acceptance from me on who she is, she still feels, at times,100% incomplete, carrying around the scars, marks and voids that about seven out of eight women probably have never considered. I tell her, “You’re alive. Why aren’t you happy with that?” Then comes that pause, a stare off into the distance...an outburst. And I realize I’ll never understand what it’s like to go around in her skin.

Or head. Studies have verified post-traumatic stress disorders in breast cancer survivors that never go away. They involve the fear that the cancer and ensuing grueling treatment WILL return. Or survivors can’t stop running their experiences through their minds, unable to get over it. 

Jamie is in the latter category. Her rumination over the experience has me finding her, at times, in tears and inconsolable. OR manifests in random episodes of anxiety, anger and long “moods.” While I can see effects of breast cancer on her body, I can’t see the psychological—or even be 100% present with the awareness that she can even still be suffering. 

Another invisible layer of pain is born of the guilt and sadness over the passing of so many of her BC sisters. And the support efforts she takes part in, while positive in their goals, are grim reminders of her “past” illness.

This is what lies underneath...what often bursts to the surface...what might never go away and what can be a challenge for some of us close to Jamie.  

For those of you with a wife, girlfriend or partner who’s going through breast cancer PTSD, have patience and by all means try not to “fix” things. Reminding her—like I’ve done too many times—that she’s alive and should be happy resonates but doesn’t relieve. And can put you in harm’s way (haha). Say it once, maybe twice and then stop. Whatever physical comfort she prefers—a hand hold, a hug, a neck rub—apply liberally. She’ll tell you when you’re done. And sometimes, giving her space is huge. You’ll figure it out.   

Just know that she knows that at the end of each day, she’s glad to have survived. And she doesn’t have to be happy about it. 

--Gregg Martini