5 Stages of Grief

It has only been one month since my oncologist told me that I had metastatic breast cancer, and it’s only been a little over three weeks since my hysterectomy. Honest to dog, it feels like a couple months since all this began, as if I am in a suspended state. Between Covid-19 and my medical leave of absence, I have no concept of time anymore.

During this period of time, I have definitely cycled through the different stages of grief, which I imagine is quite common.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

If you are like me and need a refresher as to what constitutes the 5 Stages of Grief, refer to this article on Psycom.net (link), which discusses the Kubler-Ross Model.

DENIALAvoidance, Confusion, Elation, Shock, Fear

I previously believed that denial involved only avoidance, and even thought at one point, “Well, at least I never visited the denial phase.” Boy, I was wrong.

During September, I had both a bone scan and a CT scan of my neck down to my special area. When the bone scan posted to MyChart stated that my sternum presented as potential metastatic disease, I had a delayed mental breakdown. I had an important meeting that morning, which I had to lead. I told myself that I could break down later. When it was safe, I ended up taking a half day from work because I went to a bad place.

Quite simply, I went into shock. 

I swear, I knew that very day I was going to be stage 4 and that my cancer was back. I was already back in the chemo chair in my mind. I rocked back and forth in a corner in my bedroom, whispering, “I can’t do this” over and over again. My face went numb. My arms went numb and eventually, my hands went numb. I couldn’t

My loved ones who knew I was having a panic attack about this told me, “Oh this could be the result of your trip and fall.” I wanted to believe them and go along with their theory, and I eventually agreed it could be a possibility. I never really believed it fully, but I wanted to.

The fear that I felt that day will stay with me for a very long time. It’s the type of fear that consumes you and changes you. It definitely changed me.

ANGER – Frustration, Irritation, Anxiety

Oh, I have visited this stage and camped out here for a spell. Heck, I think I have bought a house in this stage, renovated it, and redecorated. I know this phase so well. I have felt angry, and why not? I’m allowed.

I did everything I was supposed to do to ensure that I didn’t suffer the same fate as my mother. I started getting yearly mammograms at the age of 25, and sometimes, I had to go twice a year. With every mammogram, I had an ultrasound done due to having dense breast tissue (aka fibrocystic breast tissue). I had multiple fiboradenomas, and multiple biopsies.

At the age of 30, doctors found my breast cancer at stage 1b. I “caught it early.” I went through absolute hell and back for almost 2 years – a lumpectomy, chemotherapy (including anaphylactic shock), radiation, double mastectomy, and reconstruction. Still, to this day, I experience legit flashbacks if I ever get lightheaded and dizzy because that’s the sensation I felt before anaphylactic shock.

I. Did. It. All.

My oncologist threw everything but the sink at me, and I came out of that period of my life scarred and shell shocked. I even had my oncologist repeatedly tell me that the odds of it coming back were so small because of the early stage and aggressive treatment. I did everything I could to prevent this, to not end up like my mother, and it still fucking happened. This should make me angry, and it’s okay to be angry. I’m not going to pretend to be someone or something I am not.

BARGAINING – Struggling to Find Meaning, Reaching Out to Others, Telling One’s Story

Man, if I thought I could bargain my way out of this, I absolutely would. For real, if I had something I could offer in order to not have this disease, then I would do it. “Lara, you will no longer have stage 4 cancer anymore if you give up coff-” “DONE.”

In all seriousness, I don’t consider myself all that religious, so I don’t typically hold conversations with God. I didn’t, nor will I ever, ask God why this has happened to me because why not? Me having stage 4 cancer is not some horrible tragedy. It’s genetics.

It might also be that I don’t believe that God gave me cancer, or that I have been set on some journey. (Whenever I read ‘cancer journey,’ I cringe. It’s a disease, not a trek in the woods.)

While I haven’t had any “WHY GOD WHY” conversations with a higher being, I have been struggling to find meaning in all of this. One of the reasons why I love(d) running so much is that it allowed me to be someone other than a cancer patient. I got to be a runner, an athlete. I wanted to test my physical capabilities, especially after my body betrayed and failed me.

Life as a cancer mutant with a rare genetic condition means I live a different life. I have had a black and white view of what this body of mine does, and this diagnosis has me wondering if it just all grey. Maybe my body didn’t fail me? Maybe my body did what it just does, and I just have to navigate these setbacks and accomplishments more graciously?

DEPRESSION – Overwhelmed, Helplessness, Hostility, Flight

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 4 people with cancer suffer from major or clinical depression (source). I have made absolutely no secret that I have dealt with depression before. After treatment for my early stage breast cancer ended, I suffered and I struggled with my life. I had to reach out for help when it got really bad for me in my early 30s.

An October 2, 2013 article on MD Anderson’s website provides the following symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness
  • Slow physical and mental responses
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling guilt for no reason
  • Decreased concentration ability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

In addition to medication, MD Anderson recommended the following activities to manage symptoms of depression: psychotherapy exercise, and stick to routine. The article explained, “Following a routine can help you maintain a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of control, both of which can be negatively affected by cancer and depression. A routine can also help push an individual to engage in activities they wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to complete.”

I did end up doing all of those suggestions, and it worked for me! Once I got help, started running and dumped a horrible boyfriend, I got my depression and anxiety under control. I really did climb out of the fog of depression and learned to really enjoy my life.

Now… *waves around* this.

I am struggling with the enormity of this disease, and what it’s taken from me. When I read the symptoms of depression listed above, I can say that I can check off six of those items. What I have feared for so long has come to be. For so long, I have been absolutely frightened that I was going to end up just like my mother, and now that it has happened, I’m just a scared 40 year old who wishes she had her Mom.

Be rest assured that I do have a good network of support to assist me as I come to terms with my new normal. If I can get back to running, even if at a much slower pace, then that will help me manage my depression. I also think being off work right now is playing a part in my mood. I enjoy a schedule and routine, and I also appreciated the ability to not think about cancer for 8 hours a day.   

ACCEPTANCE – Exploring Options, New Plan in Place, Moving On

What does it meant to achieve acceptance with a stage 4 diagnosis? I know and understand that my life is going to regularly consist of doctor’s visits, blood draws, scans, and sometimes surgeries. None of this will be easy, and I likely will regress back to the earlier phases more often than not. I truly believe that this phase will involve layers upon layers of events and truths that I need to accept, until I get to the final layer, the core: inner peace.

I have accepted that I have stage 4 breast cancer. It’s not like I have a choice, and I can somehow opt out of this. If I could, I fucking would. (Way too many people say that “cancer is a gift” and if that was true, I’d keep my receipt and return this.) This is my life now, and I can either fight my circumstances or do whatever I can to accept all of this and adapt. It’s not an act of bravery to accept my stage 4 diagnosis. It’s a necessity.

When I dig deeper, there are some hard truths that require reflection and acceptance. I accept the fact that I will die from this disease. I also accept that there is a possibility that I may not see my 50s or my 60s. I have to accept the fact that I may not even see 45, although I do hope that is not the case. This could all be out of my control.

As noted above, I want to achieve inner peace. This disease has forced me to rethink about what my priorities are and what they should be. I, for sure, want to figure out my new plan. I’m not going to figure it all out now. I can’t plan this out. I just have to let go.