Breast Cancer Broke Me — And I'm Grateful For It

by Laura Berman, PhD

Joan Didion wrote: “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” It happened for me in 2009, when two incredible, heart-rending things happened at once — first, my mom died of breast cancer, and then, still floundering in the dark waves of grief, I was subsequently diagnosed with the same cancer — in the same breast.

The treatment plan was swift and simple — chemotherapy, mastectomy — and as a self-confessed Type A control freak, I devoted myself to my health like an Olympian. I became vegan. I cut way, way back on my work as a sex therapist and television personality. Bye-bye, career. Bye-bye, hair. Bye-bye, breasts. And, worst of all, bye-bye Mom.

At first, when my mom got sick, I was in deep denial. I refused to accept that she could leave me, that she could go somewhere where I would not be able to reach. I would go to the hospital with a determined smile on my face, speaking confidently about her medication options, researching late into the night on my iPad while she slept in the bed before me. But the more I smiled and the more I searched, the more I felt her slipping away from me. Her eyes had a kind but slightly disinterested expression when she listened to me, as if she was watching an interminable holiday recital.

Her disconnection made me angry. On one occasion, I picked up the phone and started ranting to my friend and coach Diana Chapman. “What am I supposed to do?” I demanded. “It’s like she’s accepted she is going to die.” Diana paused, and then said, “Well, maybe it’s time you accept it too.”

My mouth fell open. How can she be so cruel. But then, Diana continued, “If you want to connect with her before she goes, if you want to reach her where she is at, then you need to accept that her life on this earth is ending. Resisting it is only driving you further away from her. Take the time you have right now. She knows it. She has accepted it. She wants you to do the same. She wants you to be here with her right now.”

Hearing those words was like a curtain dropping. I understood with a sudden and complete finality that Diana was telling me the truth. Not just a truth — but the truth. The truth of our very existence on this earth — that we all have a beginning, and we all have an end. Resisting that truth was like resisting a sun setting. Futile. Foolish. It was making me miss out on the beauty that was happening right before my eyes.

I stopped asking, “Why me?” and “What next?” and instead I said, “I see you, pain. Sit down. Have tea with me.” I prepared a table inside of myself for all the things I was afraid of. And then I sat with them.

So I went back to my mom’s room. I was going to open my mouth and say something — something like, “Mom, I know. It’s OK,” something true, something real — but before I could, we simply looked at each other. Without saying anything, I felt the energy in the room shift. Something released, unknotted inside of me. She already knew; she knew I was finally there. “Laura,” she said simply, and I held her hand.

I felt like a secret door had been opened to me. For the first time in months, I was able to really laugh — laugh like I meant it, like it was my purpose on this planet. For so many precious days, we got to sit together, tell stories, share memories, and speak of things big and small, magical and real, known and unknown. And then, like the sun beyond the horizon, she slipped away — slowly and then all at once.

Sufi poet Rumi once wrote that “the cure for the pain is in the pain.” Well, I knew with certainty that my pain wasn’t going anywhere. It was rich and deep and fertile. It was demanding attention. I could let it cry-it-out alone, like an infant in its crib, or I could pick it up and tend to it — I could shower it with care, with gentle words, with lullabies and nourishment.

So I began to live that intention in my own life. I allowed my rage and sorrow to exist. I allowed myself to feel small, frightened, and adrift. For the first time since I was a child, I thought of little else but my own comfort. I stayed in bed while my family cared for me. I cried and cried. I let the chemotherapy break me apart as surely and swiftly as my grief did. I pictured myself like a caterpillar deconstructing inside of her cocoon.

And, like the caterpillar, I made no judgments about what happened to me. I stopped asking, “Why me?” and “What next?” and instead I said, “I see you, pain. Sit down. Have tea with me.” I prepared a table inside of myself for all the things I was afraid of. And then I sat with them. I sat with them while they raged at me, while they pulled me to and fro and demanded my full-body attention.

And, then, bit by bit, my “dark night of the soul” began to end. Like a season, it came to a creeping, graceful close, reaching its conclusion as if it had been ordained by the planetary cycles itself. The cancer went away. My body became strong again. My hair grew back. I went back to work. I wrote a book. I brought flowers to my mother’s graveside. I read her poems aloud and smiled.

Now, I am mastering the art of living in a world that refuses to make guarantees; a world that sends messages through pain, a world that requires a blood offering in exchange for growth. Like everyone who has experienced grief or disease or loss or terror, I have come out the other side with a war story; with battle wounds, some visible, some hidden deep in the fiber of my being. I have come out with myself — and a greater knowledge of what it really means to exist as a creature on this planet.

It’s frightening. It’s real. It’s good to know.

Images: Laura Berman