I call them breast cancer "rookies." Women newly diagnosed are like unbaked chocolate chip cookie dough: Sweet and raw. Ready to be moulded, baked and changed forever by the experience itself – but hopefully also by experienced patients like me.
Breast cancer is still the most common women's cancer, and still the deadliest. In Canada alone, 65 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each and every day.
I remember when one of those 65 women was me.
So green, so new, such a deer in the headlights. I didn't know a "surgically implanted port" (that bottle-cap-looking thing implanted under your collarbone) from "neutropenia" (when your white blood cell count dips after your chemotherapy infusion, and you can't fight infection effectively). But I learned. And, I believe, I learned from other women to help other women. It's how things work.
I got most of my information from my oncologists. But I learned my secrets, my gems, from other patients, as we found each other through patient waiting rooms, in elevators and hallways, and in the chemo wards. I learned a lot about strength and the power in numbers from these other women, and this uplifted and encouraged me.
Some of the handy nurses' and volunteers' advice that we shared included the tip that if you have nausea, take your provided medication immediately to prevent throwing it up. Or that rinsing your mouth with warm salty water several times a day will help shorten the duration and discomfort of those notorious mouth sores that everyone seems to get. Or that some of the medications led to diarrhea or constipation or both! In conversations with others, I would go on to expand on some of these suggestions, and provide further information (like carrying baby wipes in one's purse, for said side-effects).
As my treatment progressed, I loved to try to help as much as I could, like suggesting rookies connect with their calmness, or discover it, in a more "mindful" way. Writing down and repeating mantras such as "When you are hungry – eat. When you are tired – lay down," straight from Zen textbooks, could effectively be applied to chemotherapy side-effects and their unpredictable nature.
I was forced by my side-effects to become more flexible and patient, and I will always be grateful for that now-lifelong benefit. I like to encourage women to reframe their time during cancer treatments as an opportunity to spiritually evolve and develop these tools. The blessing is that these new-found techniques actually stay with us, long after the treatments are over.
And I've learned that women are amazing.
After the initial shock and guttural sobs subside, women take a deep breath, roll their sleeves up and go on. Like performing artists, we fake it till we make it, and complete our treatments and operations while taking care of husbands, kids, aging parents, and even working full time.
I did too, working full time during chemo and radiation, navigating two sick senior dogs (in fact, my bichon frise Annastasia had her eighth disc surgery on the same day as my first chemo) and being a newlywed – I was the consummate actress – just like all the other women I met in the cancer clinics. Women go to parent-teacher meetings, drive kids to soccer, bathe dogs, support husbands and make chocolate chip cookies like pros – all during cancer treatments.
We might as well have been the Rockettes, smiling from ear-to-ear and doing our leg-kicks in unison, right there in the patient waiting rooms.
Unfortunately, we do not receive Tony Awards or Academy Awards for our efforts. We do receive many gifts, however. One of which is the new sisterhood to which we belong.
Take away the pink ribbons and all the charity organizations, the walks, the runs, and the political correctness of our society, and we are left with each other: Our sister breast cancer patients, all of us fighting for our lives. We are all in the trenches together, fighting for ourselves, for each other and for a world without breast cancer.
We survive, exchanging knowing looks, sharing information, triumphs and tragedies – and even laughter. And it really is the best medicine.
As vaudevillian as it sounds, breast cancer sisterhood is The Big Show, and the experienced take the rookies under their wings, together making the show a smash success. The prize is our long, healthy lives.
And, if we're lucky, with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies waiting just for us. Pink frosting optional.
Bif Naked is an international recording artist, cancer survivor, poet and activist currently working on her first book with Harper Collins. Loving and living in Vancouver and Paris, simultaneously. You can follow her on Twitter @bifnaked