How did you first find out you had cancer?
A psychic suggested that I get my “female parts” checked out every six months for the next two years. I thought, “Psychic, schmychic…” and made an appointment with my gynecologist. To my surprise, she found a very small lump in my breast and that triggered a series of diagnostic tests, including high magnification mammography, needle aspiration biopsy, and lumpectomy. On my 37th birthday, I got a phone call from the surgeon who did the lumpectomy to tell me I had breast cancer.
How did you react when you heard the news?
I was shocked and went numb. I drove to a birthday celebration—I don’t remember the drive—and when my friends all shouted “Happy Birthday,” I burst into tears and sobbed a few bucketfuls. I was single, alone, young, and terrified. I hadn’t had my babies yet and felt like I was robbed of that choice. I was angry, sad, filled with grief, and didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was parachuted into a foreign land with no map and where I didn’t speak the language. I had to make some big decisions, fast, and had to educate myself quickly so that I could make the best decisions for me.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
Back then, 23-plus years ago, the treatment protocols were not as standard as they are now. I got many second opinions as I gathered information to make my decisions. I heard everything from nothing more was needed, to remove both breasts and my ovaries and take massive doses of chemotherapy. I chose to have an additional surgery to remove some more breast tissue (a partial mastectomy) and my lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread. The nodes were negative, so I opted for radiation only.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
Losing the function of my breast. Between two surgeries and radiation, I still had more than half of my breast, but it looked very different and had no sensation in it. I got exhausted by the radiation treatments and had to take daily naps. The radiation also burned my skin and it was so tender that I couldn’t stand to wear a bra for months. I also really felt like “damaged goods” and knew that no man would want to be with me now.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
First, cry. Then breathe. Then know that you can take the time that you need to research options. It’s not always imperative to have treatment the next day or week, so you have a little time to determine what’s best for you. Don’t go to any medical appointments alone. Take someone with you who will hold your hand, take notes and ask questions to make sure you understand what the doctor is saying. Ask questions until you feel clear about what you are hearing and until you feel comfortable making the treatment decisions that are best for you. Consider having a “healing team”—the people who are involved with your treatment and recovery. This may initially include many medical professionals. It’s also helpful to consider what other elements of healing are important to you, including psychotherapy, diet and nutrition, spiritual practice, exercise, and help with chores and drives to medical appointments. Assemble a team that will change as your treatment progresses. And remember that you are the captain of the team!
How long have you been cancer free?
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I learned the real essence of beauty, attractiveness, and desirability. I learned that life is precious and that it’s time to start living like I know that. I learned that what didn’t kill me, made me so much stronger. I learned why it’s called the “practice” of medicine. I learned that I’m willing to risk the odds to do things like have a baby after cancer (she’s about to turn 20!). And I discovered my life purpose, which is helping women with breast cancer to know how beautiful, desirable and sexy they are.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Love yourself, no matter what. Forgive yourself for getting cancer, and know that you’re beautiful, desirable and sexy. That has nothing to do with what your body looks like or how it functions. It’s about your inner radiance and confidence. Trust yourself and spread your wings to fly.
Barbara Musser is a respected intimacy and sexuality speaker, educator and coach, facilitator and author. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 as a young single woman. She married and had a child after treatment. She has worked with thousands of women, couples, and health care professionals, specializing in creating programs to help heal the trauma of cancer treatments to femininity, intimacy, sexuality and relationships. Barbara is the founder and CEO of Sexy After Cancer. Barbara is the author of Sexy After Cancer—Meeting Your Inner Aphrodite on the Breast Cancer Journey. She is a member of AASECT, the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists and ISSWSH, the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health.
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