When I look at my life, I think it aesthetically looks pleasing. I’ve grown a robust network of kind and amazing friends and other loved ones. I have a job I like. My basic needs like food, shelter, and water are fulfilled. That is more than what I’ve had in the past. That is more than what others have. Like the picture of the sunrise and trees below, life has been a blur, but I’ve been doing my best to still appreciate what’s beautiful.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve had all types of flashbacks of my life, including challenges, accomplishments, goals, milestones, and a wide range of experiences from the beautiful to the ugly. If I was able to tackle all of those things, why should breast cancer be any different?
In conversations with different people, I have received advice to distract myself. I feel ambivalent about that tip.
Breast cancer is not my first major challenge in life. As I mentioned in Changing the Conversation, I have been a sexual violence survivor since around age 4. My first predator was a father figure, who has not been held accountable by the criminal justice system or any system to this day. I shared my story of abuse with three staff members at schools throughout my K-12 education, and none of them did their due diligence to report my case. I wasn’t educated enough to understand that it was their responsibility. Despite all of that, friends, significant others, and other loved ones helped me recover as much as I could from those toxic experiences. If I could overcome sexual violence, couldn’t I handle cancer?
The difference is that I didn’t know that the sexual violence was bad and ugly while it was happening. I didn’t even know what sexual violence meant. This time around, I know precisely how bad and ugly breast cancer could be.
My aunt died from breast cancer when I was when I was 17. There was a boyfriend that I dated from ages 20-26. My first year of dating him ended up being his mom’s last year of life. She died of breast cancer soon after I turned 22. I saw how the medical system was not kind to her so every time people tell me how blessed I am to be in a city where there are many resources for excellent healthcare … I feel both grateful and guilty.
Of course I want healthy outcomes for my diagnosis, but it still pains me that my aunt and ex-boyfriend’s mother did not have better experiences with healthcare and medical insurance in their breast cancer stories.
People keep telling me to look for distraction, but I wonder to what extent a distraction is good. I continue to go to work not for a distraction, but because I genuinely like what I do. As I told my coworker, it makes me feel like I’m contributing to society. I need to feel a sense of purpose. That was true of me before this diagnosis, and that is true of me now.
With that said, I’ve also experienced the negatives of distraction. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how much I had coped with my childhood abuse by distracting myself with school, extracurriculars, friends, and other things. In fact, my religion had become more of a distraction from the abuse than a source of healing. When I was in high school, my aunt told me to be a good Christian girl and forgive the man who had sexually abused me; however, there was no demand for him to repent and apologize. As a teenager, I learned how people use religion and other values to silence a necessary yet difficult conversation. As I grew older, others echoed my aunt’s sentiments. I had to do a lot of personal work to counteract those messages.
Additionally, I’ve observed the cons of distraction in other people’s lives. When I think of a few of my exes, I recognize that they presented themselves well. They were passionate about something in life. It could’ve been their career, education, hobby, and/or some other aspiration.
As time unfolded, I realized that their passions and ambitions were distractions from events that they weren’t ready to process. They converted their trauma into success. That is wonderful to witness when you’re their supervisor, coworker, instructor, neighbor, relative, close (but not so close) friend, acquaintance, date, or new partner. That is not so wonderful when you are a partner trying to make your partnership more significant, profound, meaningful, and truthful.
It’s difficult to love people unconditionally either when they don’t love themselves or they love themselves with conditions.
I’m consistently trying to love myself better, and I know it can’t be done if I’m treating distraction like a perpetual numbing medication.