Thought Catalog

21 Things To Expect When You’ve Been Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

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Bras strung to a fence for breast cancer awareness
Unsplash / Pablo Heimplatz

The perception of cancer by the general public is, I think, very different to the reality of it. Treatments are different, varied and ongoing, and the sickness that you imagine isn’t quite the same and depends greatly on a variety of things. So, instead of the things that everyone assumes will happen, these are the things that happened that I wasn’t quite as ready for…

1. PEOPLE ARE GOING TO TELL YOU WHAT THEY WOULD DO ‘IF THEY WERE YOU’

This is number one for a reason, because it will 110% happen, and because you should take it all with a grain of salt, or like, a whole dish of salt.

People suddenly become experts and tell you to detox/to drink only green juice/to cut out soy/to have a mastectomy/to not have a mastectomy/that you’re making the wrong choice/that tits don’t matter/to have chemo/to not have chemo/to not have radiation/to not take medication… but basically, unless they were in the room with you and your doctor, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You will be scared, you will be anxious and you will be upset. You might want people’s opinions, you might want to tell them to shut the fuck up — you do you.

2. PEOPLE WON’T REALIzE YOU’RE SICK AT FIRST

You don’t start chemo and then magically (is that the right word?) look ill. It took me falling down on the bus from chemo-induced exhaustion 3 months into treatment to realize I was going to have to ask people to get up for me. THAT. IS. DIFFICULT. But also, props to my beautiful wig for hiding my shiny noggin for so long!

3. PEOPLE ARE GOING TO STARE AT YOU

It took a while for me to look noticeably sick, but once I did, the staring did not stop. People are nosy. I know this because I’m nosy too… but it definitely doesn’t feel nice. Just smile or whip that stink-eye out. Your choice. (I started with the smile, and by the end of treatment had full-blown stink-eye for every starer out there).

4. DOCTORS WILL TRY TO RECOMMEND THINGS OUTSIDE OF THEIR SPECIALTY

Let them be experts in their field and wait till you hear it from the right person. I spent a lot of time being worried about so many different things, only to find out from the specialist that treatments have changed or that I’d be having something different. There are enough things to worry about without worrying about things that won’t even happen, believe me.

5. YOU WILL HAVE ALL OF THE FEELINGS

You will question whether people are acting out of pity, you will worry you wont be attractive anymore, you will hate your body, you will love your body. No feeling lasts forever, so just try to go with it.  

6. PEOPLE WILL PITY YOU 

It’s inevitable. If you want sympathy, accept it. If you want them to go fuck themselves, say that.

7. YOU WILL SEE PEOPLE DEAL WITH THEIR DIAGNOSIS DIFFERENTLY TO YOU 

You will be surrounded by people who are also sick. Some people want all of the details on social media, some want to do it completely alone. Do whatever it is that you think will get you through. For me, it was to act extremely blasé about the entire situation. To the guy at the hospital with the “Fuck Cancer” t-shirt on every week and the scowl on his face: I hope you are finished with treatment and enjoying life. You made me realize I didn’t need to be positive all the time, so thanks mate!

8. YOU COULD FEEL HATRED TOWARDS YOUR BOOBS

I thought this is how I would eventually feel about mine, but honestly I have only felt love and celebration. They’re beautiful and magical and perky AF.

9. YOU WILL MAKE JOKES

… and people won’t know what to do. It’s fun. My favorite was asking for things with the validation, “It’s my starlight wish…” (e.g. “Dad I want a puppy, it’s my starlight wish, so if you could just arrange that with them, yeah, thanks,” or, “Mum, I can’t do my washing… I have cancer.”) Maybe it’s inappropriate, or maybe making jokes is what got me through to the end.

10. PEOPLE WILL REPEATEDLY ASK YOU IF YOU’RE ALLOWED TO DRINK ALCOHOL 

Look them dead in the eye and say, “If I want to get so obliterated drunk that I forget about what is happening to me, then I will.” “Yep” would work too. Maybe this is more a reflection on my alcohol consumption at that stage. Make sure you do actually check with your doctor…

11. PEOPLE WILL SAY FUCKED UP SHIT

Sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose. Either way, you don’t need to listen to it. One regret I have is not telling people to go fuck themselves when it was totally appropriate to do so.

12. YOU WILL FALL APART

This is likely. It is what I struggled with the most. I don’t think I would’ve gotten as sick as I did if I had asked for help and not been so bloody stubborn. At the same time, I survived, so maybe I needed to do everything for myself until I couldn’t anymore? Who really knows…

13. YOUR HAIR WILL FALL OUT

All of it. Even the hair you didn’t know you had. The tiny hairs on your arms, the tiny hairs on your belly, the tiny hairs on your toes — all gone! None of it is as bad as your eyebrows coming out — they’re the real MVP of your face. You want a positive spin? You will save money on razors, brazilians and those overpriced haircuts you used to justify.

14. HAIR IN THE SHOWER WILL BECOME SO MUCH MORE DISGUSTING

Because it 100%, absolutely, positively is not yours. Yuck.

15. YOU WON’T REALIzE HOW SICK YOU ARE UNTIL AFTER THE FACT

You probably won’t even realize the extent of it until you’re 6 months post-treatment and you see a photo you previously thought was, you know, alright, and be like, “Fuuuuuuuuck, I was sick.” Or maybe that’s just me…

16. PEOPLE WILL BE STICKY-BEAKS

They haven’t spoken to you in yonks, yet they will want to know every little detail about what’s happening. I’ve never had as many friend requests as the week that it got spilled I was sick. Didn’t accept a single one. Ha, sucked in.

17. PEOPLE WILL SAY WEIRD THINGS WHEN THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY

This is vastly different to number 11, and I hope you can laugh about it. For example, my dear Dad saying, “Gracie, you know, I’ve always thought you’d make a very beautiful bald woman,” after meltdown #1…

Tell me I’m wrong, but why, Dad, would you have ever thought that? Thanks, though, for always being on my team.

18. PEOPLE WILL WALK RIGHT PAST YOU ON PURPOSE.

It’s okay, you look different, they know you’re sick, they don’t know what to say. It will hurt, but it’s from a position of ignorance.

FYI, if you know someone going through treatment and you don’t know what to say, think about what you would say to someone not having treatment, then say that.

E.g. “Hey Grace, how are you going?” Pretty standard opener right?!

Then I could be like “Hey you! Yeah, I’m alright, thanks. My sister just had a baby, I graduated from uni and I’m about to go on holidays with my family. How’s everything with you?”

Pretty standard conversation formula, which also stops people from feeling invisible or defined by their illness.

19. IT WILL FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T DO IT

I promise that you can. You can and you will. Let yourself feel like you can’t, cry, ask for a hug from your Mumma, and then remember that you can.

20. YOU WILL CHANGE

I promise it will be for the better. ***

21. SOMETIMES A NUTELLA MILKSHAKE IS THE ONLY SOLUTION TO A PROBLEM

Zero explanation needed.

*** I cannot tell you how much I HATED it when people would say this to me. I felt like saying “I thought I went pretty alright beforehand, thanks, didn’t really need this to change me for the better, you dickhead.” Because in all honesty, have you ever met someone and thought “This person’s alright… but you know what would make them better!? Breast cancer!” Then, looking back at who you were, and what you went through, you will be SO PROUD of yourself and you’ll realize parts of you did change irrevocably, but it’s okay. TC mark

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