- CHRISTINA MAISANO -
For those living in the 21st century we all know what the BIG C refers to…CANCER!! Big scary cancer. We all know someone who has had it, died from it or in fact you may have had it yourself. I myself have had it four times. I am 54. I think that gives me license to give you my perspective on it which may well be different from others.
For ease of storytelling I will tell this tale in chronological order. I was only nineteen when I was first diagnosed with cancer (I turned 20 just a few days before I was officially admitted as an outpatient at the hospital that would treat me for the next 30 plus years. But saying 19 just makes it sound so much more dramatic, and let you know from the get go I am a drama queen!). I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer of the lymph glands, a pretty curable cancer as cancer goes. I was at Stage 3 (Stage 5 is dead!).
I got very depressed after my first treatment which was on a monthly basis. After three treatments I stopped having it. My depression got worse and worse and I ended up in a psychiatric ward for six weeks. Nothing changed. Eventually my depression started to lift and I went back some six months or so later and was retested. My cancer had not grown. A little miracle for me!
I continued to have treatment for a couple of months and then went on with my life. About six months later I was sick again and had to have another three months of treatment. But it took six months as the treatment was harsher and I got very sick and had to have blood transfusions. Life continued on with regular checks. No big life epiphanies. No major ‘oh I have to make the most of everyday.’ I was just pissed that half my twenties were gone.
I was told by my specialists to start having mammograms in my thirties as there was a small possibility that the radiotherapy I had on my chest could possibly instigate breast cancer. I didn’t think much of this as it was said to me really in passing so I went along and had the mammogram every year. After ten years they told me if I was going to get breast cancer I would have gotten it by then so they reduced the tests to every two years. In 2011 when going for my regular results I got told I had breast cancer. I was 45 years old.
I wasn’t really shocked. After all that was why they were testing me. I was told it was Stage 1. So super SUPER early. All good news considering it was cancer. I imagined I would have a lumpectomy and some radiotherapy and that would be that. The doctor however said that due to the fact that I had previously had radiotherapy they didn’t want me to have any more. Instead I would be having a mastectomy. WTF!!! That’s where they chop your breast off. I was horrified. They went on to talk about the surgery and what my options were post surgery and all I could think was - I am 45 and they are going to chop my breast off. I didn’t have an intimate partner so it wasn’t that that was an issue.
I decided then and there then that if the radiotherapy caused the breast cancer then I was more than likely going to get it in the other breast. I would when I recovered from this surgery choose to have the other breast removed. I didn’t get much of a chance. Within a year I was diagnosed with cancer in the other breast. Yep third time is the charm. I had a 12 hour surgery where they removed the second breast and then luckily I was fat enough that they could do a fat transfer and create my new breasts. I never in this ordeal had to have a flat chest. I don’t think I could have coped with that.
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer you are put on a database and receive frequent information from the breast cancer association. One day I opened up a package that was sent to my house to find a PINK tote bag with the association’s logo on it and to my horror a bra with pockets for prosthetic breasts. I just gave it to my mum to put it away, I found it extremely confronting. Then I started to receive their association newsletters. While these had interesting information they also had a letters page for people with breast cancer to write in to tell their stories. Here is where it all began and I realised how my experience was vastly different to everyone else’s. Stories and stories of people whose experiences were nothing but positive. Cancer had been the best thing to ever happen to them. They appreciated their families more, didn’t sweat the small stuff anymore, priorities changed, and careers changed and on and on it went. Month after month I received these newsletters until I just gave them to my mum (the information was useful for her community radio station.)
What was wrong with me? Why didn’t all these positive things happen to me? I had just spent half my life being depressed and angry? I just didn’t get it. What did I get from cancer? Chemotherapy. Radiotherapy. Surgery. Time lost. Career lost. Tears. Anger. Depression.
Thinking about this article I came up with what may be a reason. Maybe I was content with my life. Maybe I didn‘t need to make any big changes. Maybe I didn’t need to have a major health crisis to see what was important in my life.
In 2017 when I was 51, due to some annoying symptoms I had some tests and it was discovered I had bowel cancer. My mum was going overseas two days later! I had surgery and thankfully did not come out with a colostomy bag. As it was Stage 2 I didn’t have to have any other treatments. But also no epiphanies; guess I am just not that kind of girl.
Don’t get me wrong I am not trying to rag on anyone who does have that experience. More power to you. It’s just that when telling my story to people for the first time I get asked - how did it change your life? I know they want an airy fairy Oprah answer. Sorry I don’t have one. This is my reality.