Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Art of Crying

When I learned I had breast cancer in 2003, I didn't cry. It's not that I decided not to cry. I simply didn't. Though my body thrummed with anxiety, my mind seemed detached. I remember wondering whether I felt sorry for myself. I actually pondered that as an objective question. I realized that the answer was no when, rather than asking "Why me?" I found myself asking "Why not me?" After all, I'd been fortunate to have 54 healthy years before this bad news. My eyes stayed dry.

The process of diagnosis and treatment for cancer is often filled with waiting. For me, the waiting began after a suspicious mammogram. First, I had to wait for a biopsy to be performed, then I had to wait for the pathology report. Once that confirmed I had cancer, I had to wait until I met with my breast surgeon to learn exactly what the path report meant and what treatment she recommended. After that meeting, surgery was scheduled, but not for the next day. Rather, I had to be slotted into my surgeon's busy schedule. I was "lucky" in that I only had to wait ten days. But I was dealing with cancer and I wanted the cancer out, so ten days seemed like an eternity to me.

Once I finally had the surgery, there was more waiting for the next pathology report. And so on. Very anxiety provoking. During these waiting periods, I couldn't eat. I woke up with a start each morning to find my body literally vibrating with nervous energy. But mentally, I remained detached. I focused on understanding my situation. I spent a lot of time researching every aspect of breast cancer and its treatment on the Internet. This kept me outwardly calm. I still didn't cry.

When the pathology report finally arrived, I learned that the surgical margins weren't clean. This meant that some cancer still remained in my breast, necessitating a second surgery. My surgeon was going on vacation, so the surgery couldn't be scheduled for several weeks. More waiting.

Physically, I recovered quickly from the first surgery and (outwardly, at least) resumed my normal life, which included caring for my toy poodle, Cosmo. Cosmo's vet had recommended that his teeth be cleaned, so I dutifully brought him to her office early one morning. Late that afternoon, when I picked Cosmo up, he seemed woozy from the sedation required for a canine cleaning, but otherwise okay. As I carried him out to the car, though, I noticed a swelling on one side of his mouth. On closer inspection, I could see that his entire upper lip was swollen. I immediately brought him back inside and asked what had happened. The vet seemed surprised but not terribly concerned. Probably the technician had propped his mouth open too wide during the cleaning, she speculated.

I felt terrible. Cosmo was totally dependent on me and because I'd trusted this obviously incompetent vet, he'd suffered. I quickly drove home and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Cosmo bore his wound with stoicism. He didn't cry. I sat down on the floor next to him. By now, his lip was massively swollen, the raw skin of his inner cheek turned outward. I began to cry.

Soon I was sobbing. In the midst of my tears, I realized that I was crying not only for Cosmo, but also for myself. In my distress at Cosmo's helplessness, I had at last found an outlet for my feelings of fear and sadness about my own situation. After I'd had a good cry, I picked myself up off the floor. I knew Cosmo's lip would heal. And I'd been told I had an early stage cancer with a good prognosis. I found strength in accentuating the positive. It made my husband and sons feel better and it made me feel better, too. But the release I experienced when I finally let go and cried was profound. My mind and body felt reconnected.

My mother-in-law, Reggie, died this week. I'm saddened by her passing and I miss her already. I haven't cried yet, but I know that crying can't be forced. One of these days, something will trigger my tears. In the meantime, I'm choosing to accentuate the positive by recalling Reggie's many gifts—her free spirit, her contagious laughter, her unexpected insights. Eventually, when I least expect them, the tears will come.