Survivor’s Guilt

By Val Jones

Survivor's Guilt

It was a sunny October afternoon, and as the bell signaled their freedom, my students jumped from their seats and scattered like marbles. Like them, I rushed from the building; free at last, ready to get my sweat on. I put my car in reverse and eased out of the parking space when my phone rang. It was my doctor. She told me I had breast cancer.

I remember sitting in my car, stunned after the big news, but thinking I could make it through cancer unscathed. After all, growing up, I’d been taught that I could overcome anything, and up until that point, I’d proven that to be true. I paid for college from my own pocket. I graduated with honors. I overcame an eating disorder. So on that Monday afternoon, headed to the gym after work, I wholeheartedly expected to duke it out with cancer and then put that behind me too.

Here it is almost three years later, and that’s not exactly how it unfolded. I can appreciate where I’ve been because I’ve become a remarkably changed woman from having been there, but cancer left its mark on me – both literally and figuratively. Long after I was dubbed “cancer free” by the professionals, I continued to wrestle with emotions regarding the changes to my body. Like any woman, so much of my identity was wrapped up in my appearance – specifically my breasts – and right or wrong, it was a harsh reality. I wasn’t so “cancer free” after all. Long after the treatments stopped, I still found myself grieving the loss of my former body.

Breast-sparing: It sounded like the ideal procedure at the time, but the missing tissue from my lumpectomy, coupled with the effects of radiation, left me lopsided and with uneven “girls.” I slipped into my bra on that first morning back to work, and my heart was broken. My left breast, healthy and unaffected, looked perfectly poised in my B cup, while my right breast sat deflated in the other. And as I stared into my mirror, I wondered why no one informed me that radiation would shrink my breast, leaving it small and – ugh – eternally perky. Thoughts of my future 65 year-old breasts popped into my head – the right one would now be “frozen in time” while I tucked the other inside my waistband. Great. Just great.

After work, I made a trip to the mall, returning home with new sports bras. And while every woman in America probably credits yoga pants as the greatest invention ever, I’m here to report that they lose their appeal when your sports bra collection dictates them as standard uniform. Forget cute tops and low necklines. Without proper undergarments, clothing options are limited. And if that wasn’t aggravating enough, the additional anti-cancer drugs transformed my formerly fit body into a pudgy mess. Cursed with sports bras and cellulite? Too much.

I saw a plastic surgeon. He told me that my problem could be fixed, but his attitude was characterized by his opening statement, “You’re lucky to come out looking this good.” As though my standard of beauty should somehow be lowered because I’d suffered cancer? “Lots of lumpectomies turn out far worse,” he said, “and lots of women would be glad to have your breasts.” Guilt.

Deflated, much like my right breast, I repeated to myself, “I should be happy with the way this turned out.” But I just wasn’t.

I knew there were worse things. I dwelled in a world where my friends recurred and were living with stage IV breast cancer, yet I was concerned with matching breasts. I felt enormous guilt for allowing shallow aesthetics to drag me down when it was such a smashing success to be cancer-free and healthy. But it took me years to whip my eating disorder, and finally happy with my body, both eating right and working out sensibly, it didn’t seem fair that cancer wanted to rip my happiness from me now. More guilt.

I’d like to tell you that I had some epiphany and realized that I am not my breasts; that I embraced my “new normal” as they say in the cancer world. But no, I didn’t. I grieved the loss of my appearance, and then I made plans to do what was necessary for me to feel better. This was about my need to win. Restoring my body to its pre-cancer appearance was my way of putting this behind me – for good.

After struggling with survivor’s guilt for so long, I finally determined that it was okay to be disappointed with my physical deformities, just as it was to be stoked about my second chance at life. I gave myself permission to feel sad about what cancer took from me, and I realized that my feelings didn’t detract from my gratitude. I made an appointment with another plastic surgeon, and we discussed what I expected to gain from my post-cancer makeover. That was the defining moment when I finally let go of the guilt, put away my grief and took the first steps toward my new beginning. Now, here I am, one month post-reconstructive surgery, and I can say that I “duked it out” with cancer and finally put it behind me.

About this writer

  • Val Jones, a freelance writer from Austin, Texas, teaches middle school English and is a breast cancer survivor. Founder of Victorious Val & the Breast Cancer Crusaders – a community of encouragement and kindness – she helps women through the emotional ups and downs of cancer. Her work has appeared in Coping with Cancer, Sasee and multiple editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

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