A women confronts herself when diagnosed with breast cancer

by Jennifer Fitzgerald

Ninety per cent of breast lumps are benign.’ I had no idea how true this statement was, but from the moment I found that small lump in my left breast, I clung to it like a life line. I don’t even know where I pulled it from—some fading part of my subconscious mind I suspect. Perhaps it was in a pamphlet in a doctor’s waiting room, or it was a chance remark from a friend. Perhaps I read it in the newspaper.

Wherever it came from, I held it close, repeating it over and over in my mind, like a mantra, to keep down the fear that was threatening to emerge from within me. That statement stayed with me over the next day as I went to visit my local doctor and the following day as I went to the breast clinic for tests. But, as the morning in the breast clinic turned to afternoon, and then as the afternoon wore on into more mammograms, physical examinations, ultrasounds and finally a fine needle biopsy, that statement—ninety per cent of breast lumps are benign—seemed less comforting. I looked around at the other women waiting. There were about ten of us there; on my figures, that meant that probably one of us would be diagnosed with breast cancer that day. I was the one.

Not wanting to acknowledge the possibility of my actually having breast cancer, I had gone alone to the clinic. So, on leaving the clinic, I kept myself together (just) until I got to the car, then just crumpled. The world fell on top of me. I have never felt so desolate, helpless and alone.

Driving home in the car, I just screamed at God, “Why me? Why me?” Yet, oddly, like a faint echo coming back from some distant place, came the reply, “Why not?” I screamed again at God, “I don’t want to go through this.” Yet, I realised that even as I screamed those words, the precipice that I so feared falling from had slipped from beneath my feet forty minutes before. Try as I did to hold onto the veneers of control and certainty that had been the backdrop to my life only three days before, even only forty minutes before, I felt that the plug had already been pulled and I was undergoing a massive bleeding of the ego, as all sense of control and certainty poured out of me. 

When I arrived home, everything felt different. Things that had seemed permanent and secure—the furniture, the house, the books, even my cat—suddenly felt temporary. With just one stroke of the Cosmic brush, I had been shockingly confronted by my own transience. And as I realised how transient I was, I realised too how transient were all the things that I had so carefully chosen and gathered around me. I felt myself moving, with a rapid intensity, into a new world—a world of vulnerability.

“I can’t answer that”

In that vulnerable world, the language of the medical profession seemed totally alien. They spoke to me of probabilities, of percentages, of objectivities. But it was little comfort. I had already defied the first statistic—ninety per cent of breast lumps are benign. Mine was not; so I could find no comfort anymore in the fifty per cent five-year survival rates they offered me. None of these facts or figures spoke to my subjective reality—to my fear and to my desperate need for hope. 

What surprised me the most through all of this was the total unwillingness of the doctors to offer me any hope. Perhaps they were silenced by a fear of law suit, perhaps they just couldn’t muster any genuine feeling of hope. Perhaps they too were conditioned by the same presumptions that I have spent the last two years fighting—the presumption that cancer means death. When I asked the doctor who diagnosed me, “What are my chances of recovery?” she was silent for a moment and then answered very seriously, “I really can’t answer that.” Then she added, as if by way of explanation, “We like to be very honest with people here.”

With that diagnosis, I have walked into a different world. It is a world punctuated by feelings of extreme vulnerability and extreme strength. It is like being on a see-saw—on one end is my humanness, with all its deep attachments for my children, my family, my home (the reachable, the touchable)—and on the other end, my transcendent spirit that, by force of circumstance, demands that I move above and beyond my humanness to fully and totally embrace my divinity. I feel that some truth has been laid bare before me that makes it no longer possible to ‘believe’ the myth of invulnerability that has become the philosophical framework in the Western world: the uncontested belief in the power of the individual to conquer the material world.

Sometimes I find it hard, when I am confronted by others who still live within the space of invulnerability, who inhabit that space as if it is theirs forever. I envy them their certainty and their confidence and though I know it to be merely an illusion of control they live within, there are times when I envy that remembered confidence, that bubble in which I also once lived. I live each day in vulnerability now. Yet, with the strange familiarity that comes from an enforced sharing of space, I rather oddly wish to remain connected with my vulnerability; I cherish the openness of spirit that comes from being made permanently vulnerable. It is in that state, and the enforced humility that comes with being made painfully aware of my mortality, that I live closest to my spirit in a kind of raw spirituality that defies all sham and veneer and constantly and painfully pares my life down to its essence.

I often wonder, though, why it is that when our life’s circumstances call upon us to walk the line between two worlds—between the world of matter and the world of mystery—those of us whose very existence challenges the material paradigm feel so alone. In the support group I attend with other women who, by force of their life challenging illnesses, face daily the contemplation of the world of mystery, feelings of aloneness are so prominent. It strikes me as odd that as we confront and face our mortality we should feel so alone, when in fact, this is one of the few truly universal human experiences we all share: irrespective of culture, race, gender, or economic circumstances we are all mortal. 

Being raised in an affluent Western country, where death, pain and suffering are so carefully hidden, and when they emerge, they do so in such a sanitised and cosmeticized manner that they are barely recognisable for what they are, I recognised early on that there was little in my conscious life’s experience to see me through this challenge. I had been confronted with issues of death and dying through my work in the area of bio-ethics—writing and speaking about the ethics of life and death decision-making in medical practice—but the personal confrontation of death takes that process of reflection into a decidedly different, more intense realm. I knew that I would need to call upon whatever intuitive knowing that has been quietly building in me over the last twenty years through my daily meditations

Off the treadmill

It is difficult to describe my feelings those first few weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer. It was like swimming in a turbulent sea of emotions. But two emotions, seemingly at odds with each other, emerged very strongly.

The one which caught me by total surprise was this odd sense of relief. I could not understand it; it was the last thing I would imagine feeling after this diagnosis. But it was unmistakable; I felt, at one level, a deep sense of relief. For the previous six years (since my youngest son was two), I had performed that torturous juggling act which too many working mothers know too well. Trying to be everything for everyone—and feeling that I had failed all round; never quite meeting the standard I set for myself. The mother who is late to pick up her child from school because she gets caught in a meeting; the working woman who has to excuse herself from a meeting early to pick up her child from school.

For many of those working years, I looked back on the time, when my children were very young—when I stayed at home with them; when I mothered, gardened and meditated intensively and joyfully—with a great sense of pain at the simplicity lost. I had tried to do it all—the supermum, the earnest advocate for social change, the writer, the conscientious spokesperson on difficult issues, and, latterly, the Ph.D. student. And day by day, the special sacred space inside me shrinking for lack of love.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was almost like a public confirmation that, yes, it was too much; and that, no, you do not have to do it anymore. You are allowed to stop. In fact, you must stop. Permission, at last, to get off this new treadmill that has been made for women.

This odd relief was, however, countered by another emotion, probably much stronger—cold, hard fear. The kind of fear that sticks in the back of your throat; that sits in the pit of your stomach and makes you unable to eat. (I could barely eat a thing for the first week after my diagnosis). The kind of panic that scrambles your head totally. That first month, I could hardly hold one thought in my mind. From being a person who used to carry a multitude of thoughts and lists in her mind—from the children’s need to take swimmers to school tomorrow to the ideas for the paper I was to be presenting at a conference—I would now walk into a shop and be unable to recall, even with all my mental exertion, why I had gone in there. And I would walk out empty handed.

At times I felt, and still feel, this fear to be completely debilitating. It remains one of my deepest challenges—for it sneaks up on me, sometimes when I least expect it, sometimes when I’m least prepared to deal with it (like when I wake in the middle of the night and there is nothing to distract me from my thoughts and my fears).

Yet, for a tantrika (a practitioner of Tantric meditation), for one who wants to know God intimately, fear (in any of its forms) must be confronted and challenged. Essentially, fear is what stands between you and God. Your fear belies your basic mistrust of God, and to live in fearlessness means to live without any barriers between you and God. The potential loss of my life has been one of the most effective ways of confronting my fear that I can imagine. I do not pretend to have conquered this at all. I can only say that I experience layers of acceptance and fearlessness, but daily new challenges press me to climb higher and higher, letting go of more and more. 

The letting go is not a serene, quiet and demure process of detachment; it is a screaming battle with a Cosmic opponent. I feel God pulling things out of my hands, and feel myself desperately trying to snatch them back. Only when it’s clear they’re right out of my reach do I say ‘I surrender’ and graciously retreat. I would wish that it were otherwise, but the ego is a stubborn opponent and fear a compelling agent. I do not claim any great victories of the spirit in this process. Any gains that have been made are God’s gains—the final surrendering of my ego against a greater opponent.

Jenny Fitzgerald was a lawyer, bio-ethicist and futurist with interests in neo-humanist ethics and critical futures. She worked for the New South Wales law reform committe, Quensland Advocacy (for people with disability) and Catholic Social Reform. She published widely on disability, euthanasia and the human genome project and released the book Transcending Boundaries, co-edited with Sohail Inayatullah.  She passed away 7 September, 2000.