We need to start listening rather than telling people how to feel during this battle.
“You’re just using cancer as an excuse to get a breast reduction.”
That’s what Laura’s high school classmate said to her after hearing the news about her former peer being diagnosed with breast cancer on November 6th, 2011.
“When I was younger, I didn’t like the size of my breasts. I was uncomfortable about the fact that I’d gone through puberty much faster than everyone else. I’d said that if it were up to me, I’d get a reduction. Then, years later, when she found out, she just threw that at me. It was so upsetting.”
Journalist, Laura Corona, sat down with us to talk about her experience as a breast cancer survivor. Our conversation focused mainly on what we need to stop saying to anyone who is facing the possibility of losing a part of their body or who might have to endure treatment side effects, such as the loss of their hair. How do we best approach and understand someone who is trying to come to terms with the possibility of death?
The constant religious interpretation, karmic justification, or unsympathetic pity is probably something Laura and others, who are fighting or have survived cancer, are hoping ceases to exist. Claiming God wanted someone to have breast cancer, or any other illness, as well as treating patients as helpless creatures, is not just offensive and disheartening. These statements and actions can also become obstacles keeping people from reaching recovery.
“The whole God gives his hardest battles to his toughest soldiers (…) despite my own beliefs, I never liked that phrase (…). Hearing things like everything is going to be okay can be someone’s way of making you feel better. However, adding a sympathetic you poor thing, when the last thing you want is for anyone to feel sorry for you, can make you wish they didn’t say anything. At first, when I had to stop working and doing my everyday activities, they’d say Sit down, you need to rest. Why don’t you get some sleep? While it’s true that the treatment crushes our immune system and strength, it doesn’t make us completely useless.”
In the same way that early detection is crucial —it’s because of this that Laura is here to tell us her story—, physical and psychological treatment are fundamental in treating breast cancer as having an emotional support system of friends and family. Laura chose not to share her diagnosis with her parents since her mother has Parkinson’s. Her boyfriend ended the relationship after finding out about her illness. This led to her having to go through this part of the process entirely on her own.
“(…) so, from the start, I came to terms with being on my own. I learned the importance of knowing your self-worth. After accepting the diagnosis, I started looking at treatments as well as searching for alternatives to traditional medicine.”
After recognizing and understanding how essential self-love is when fighting against cancer, she had to face the next step: telling her family and friends. Laura encountered all sorts of reactions and comments whenever she came out as a woman with breast cancer. While nobody meant any harm, in fact they probably felt they were being helpful or encouraging, their responses were definitely not helping.
“The worst reaction, for me, is crying. I know the outlook is tough and the disease if often related with death. But when we see people crying, it feels like we’re going to die soon. And, in reality, it doesn’t have to be that way. Especially those who get an early detection. I think that best reaction was my dad’s. I’d wish for every diagnosed woman would receive that response. When he found out he said, I’m not going to feel sorry for you. I’m not going to say poor Laura. We’re going to fight this together, standing tall, like we always have. You’ll go on with your life and when you get tired, just take a breath and keep going. You’re not going to get any pity from your family.”
There’s plenty of information online regarding self-examination for early detection, clinics women can go to get a professional diagnosis, as well as the options and ways they’ll receive care in case their results are positive. In fact, there’s hundreds of thousands of blogs, websites, and articles for that. But why is there not enough on what these women are tired of hearing? Why haven’t we been taught, from a young age, to value our bodies regardless of whether of breasts are large or small; whether our hair is shiny, curly, or straight; whether we have broad shoulders or skinny legs?
“(…) I’d wake up in the morning, take a shower, and get dressed. Then I’d press my breast to see what my body would look like. It wasn’t easy. My therapist would tell me that I was more than my breasts, my legs, or my hair. But losing any part of your body makes you feel incomplete. It’s as if you’re losing a part of your life with it.”
“I don’t like it when people I care about are having a rough time. When cancer became part of the picture, I realized I needed to place that attention on myself. I needed to stop minimizing and disregarding myself. The time had come when I needed to prove how much I loved myself. At the end of the epiphany I came to understand that while there are people who have your back, that nobody’s better equipped to help you move on than yourself.”
Let’s stop painting the streets pink and worrying about carrying a pink ribbon during October. Instead, let’s start talking to our sisters, nieces, girlfriends, friends, mothers, grandmothers, and all the women who are still embarrassed to strip naked in front of a mirror and touch their breasts. Let’s support own another, even if it’s January, spring, or early in the morning. But instead of swapping butt-lifting workouts and fat-burning diets, let’s ask questions regarding whether we’ve done our weekly self-examination, if someone doesn’t know how to do it, or if they need help. We need to stop looking for acceptance and understanding from third parties. Let’s teach each other how to be survivors.
“I learned to say I love you each day and to live as if every day was the last, as cliché as that sounds. I’d look at the sky and became more aware of the things I’d ignore before. I understood what it means to be tolerant, to be empathetic, to not judge someone blindly. Being a survivor allows me to be grateful, even if I don’t know to who or what. It gives me the chance to say thank you every single day.”
What if, instead of having only 31 days of reflection for this disease we spent 365 understanding that —when found early— breast cancer is not a death sentence. We need to learn to accept and love our bodies, from head to toe. Because only then will we be able to face a battle as tough as the one these women are fighting. Self-love, which many of us desperately need, is part of the treatment we need to follow every single day. Only then will we realize that a breast does not provide or take anything away from us. Being able to continue is all that matters.
We’re infinitely grateful to Laura Corona who, at the age of 35, is a breast cancer survivor, for sharing her story with Cultura Colectiva.
All the accompanying images that illustrate this article were created by Paulina Ardilla exclusively for this text.
Translated by María Suárez