Breast Cancer between the hours of midnight and 7 AM….
by Shawn Huddy
Any of us who have heard the phrase, “I’m sorry to tell you that it’s cancer,” know that feeling when time and sound come to a complete stop. When the silence in our own heads becomes a struggle to tolerate. And all the movement around us, within our line of vision, is jerky and slow. That single moment, we all remember it, when reason and sanity temporarily leave our body.
The First Wave
The next motion, for me, in that horribly vivid chain of events, is tattooed on my brain. It was with a shaky hand that I grabbed my phone and with a shaky finger began to dial numbers that I had memorized. No searching through my contact list. I had to physically press each number, feel the keys, hear the beeps through my phone speaker. I was calling those closest in my circle, and delivering the news with a shaky voice, because I needed someplace to go, to be with people and fall apart.
That night with those people who love me was critical. It was with those who love me that I was able to express how frightened I was. To vocalize my desire to live – or rather, my aspiration NOT to die. My insistence that my daughter KNOW me, and NOT from stories that other people tell her about me, either. And that I get to watch her grow up and participate in the goal of raising her to be well-rounded, respectful, smart, compassionate, funny, and loved. I told Cancer to be damned – it wasn’t claiming me.
I cried a lot that night. I asked a lot of questions of people who had no way of answering them or easing my fears. But I was still in the company of loved ones. I knew I wasn’t in this battle alone. That felt so reassuring. So warm. I stayed that night with family. With the emotional safety blanket wrapped tightly around me.
The next day, when I knew I had to go home, I assured my family and friends that I was fine, fine. FINE. Not to worry. I would call if I felt like I needed to. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep in my own bed. Get a good night’s sleep and have a clearer picture of things. A better attitude, perhaps. With a deep breath and phony smile, I got into my car and headed home.
Have you ever traveled to a familiar place, lost in thought, when you suddenly realize, and well into your journey, that you have no recollection of the trip thus far? Well, that was my drive home. I was close to my street when I even remembered what I was doing or where my intended destination was. On that drive I wasn’t driving – I was itemizing my belongings in my head for the attorney, visualizing the attendees at my funeral, imagining my little girl shopping and laughing with her “new” Mom and forgetting about me. I was trying to choose friends to be in charge of educating her about me. I knew her Dad wouldn’t do much, as he and I were going through a nasty break up. I figured my eventual demise would bring him freedom and happiness. In short – my mind traveled to very dark and depressing places and conjured up very upsetting images and thoughts.
I walked in through the front door as if my home was foreign to me. I was afraid of the dark all over again, like I was as a child. I went through the house, just turning on the lights and staring. I don’t know what I was seeing. Not sure of my purpose. But everything I looked at seemed to represent this daunting chore or responsibility and I became overwhelmed. How will I maintain my home, care for my daughter and pets, manage a full time job, and keep up with friends and family. HOW??
Alone in the Midnight Hour
I walked into my room and the bed looked unwelcoming to me. How will I ever sleep again if my mind keeps putting me in the worst possible of scenarios? Sleep wasn’t coming. Not that night. Not the next. And when it did come, it was restless and filled with crazy body temperature fluctuations and bad dreams.
After a few nights with virtually no sleep, I had to shake hands with my new best friend -- the Graveyard Shift. Yep – the two of us, we go waaaayyyy back. We shared a lot of late nights together…watching TV, reading books, organizing and re-organizing my sock drawer…all to try to fall asleep. Lots of boxes of Kleenex went by way of the graveyard shift, too. The moment I’d get into my bed and close my eyes, I’d start to forge into scary and upsetting thoughts. I’d question the validity and benefit of the medical tests and treatments I’d had, I’d question my physicians, and even my Maker. Why me? Wasn’t I a pretty good gal? I was kind. I paid it forward. I appreciate the beauty in everyone. I find silver linings. I volunteer. I help others. WTF???
Something happens to you when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer (or any potentially terminal illness or disease). You carry on as best you can through the day. You can usually find a slice of the day to smile and laugh. To hug and hold the hand of a caregiver. To appreciate what you do have. To feel grateful for the chance to fight the illness or disease with the help of professionals and family and friends. The sun on our faces helps create an optimism about our prognosis.
All of that changes when we crawl into bed with the intention of letting go of the day’s worries and ordeals in order to slip off into restful slumber. Doesn’t happen. Our mind and worry and fear just won’t let us let go. Won’t let our heart stop beating at an accelerated pace. Won’t stop the sweating palms. It’s the medical version of Freddy Krueger…in this version he doesn’t haunt our dreams, but our ability to sleep, therefore we can’t relax enough to get good sleep.
Fear of the unknown is always a challenge, but fear of death is claustrophobic and choking underwater and tethered to a hangman’s noose. None of this is more obvious than at night when the rest of the world is peacefully dreaming and recharging their body’s battery.
Since I had gotten the cancer diagnosis right after being forced into singledom, I was so afraid of being alone at night. I wished and longed for another warm body in bed next to me, seeing his slow breaths and chest movement – close enough to touch and lie next to…I was convinced it would help calm my fears. In hindsight, I’m not sure it would have made any difference.
When the Lights Go Out at Night
It’s really THIS black and white…your family and friends worry with you, they worry about you, they cry and pray and keep faith…but when the lights go out each night – you could be fighting for your life – and they are not. You could be facing death – and they are not. So, they sleep without the panic that you try to shush internally.
I don’t have any advice for you. Nothing worked well for me until I got further along in my journey. I came to terms with my diagnosis physically, mentally, and spiritually. I trusted my physicians, I followed my treatment plans without question, I leaned on my support systems, and I re-established a line of rapport with my higher power. Some nights I was just too darn tired to worry, and slept well. Some nights were still restless and difficult. However, the card game Solitaire is helpful. Reading is good. TV can lull you to sleep with the background noise. Sleepy time tea can help make you tired. But I couldn’t give you a one-size fits all remedy for a good night’s sleep. I still can’t.
In time, however, the hours of peaceful sleep each night started to extend and my days and nights were less and less filled with fear and dread. I had to learn to lean on people. I had to share my fears and tears with like-minded individuals. This is a big reason that my support group was key to my mental survival. I can’t tell you how often I’d grab my phone, after midnight, and scroll through Facebook to see that some of my breast cancer sisters were also fighting off insomnia. Those crack-of-dawn posts and chats were priceless. Someone empathized with my worry and helped me off the figurative ledge.
It’s been three years since my diagnosis, and many nights, sleep is still not as restful or as uninterrupted or as regular as I’d like it to be. I have had to adjust my feelings about it in order to not be frustrated by losing the ability to hop in bed and within 30 minutes – out! But the Good News is that these times don’t bother me like they used to because there is always a support group member up when I am. We will catch each other on Facebook posting or commenting on other posts – then we will start to chat. We make jokes, we share stories, we commiserate about how crappy the insomnia is – but it’s not the end of the world …or the end of us.
No Longer Afraid of the Dark
I’m still single, but I’m not afraid of the dark, or the night, or losing sleep. I am not alone. Neither are YOU!!