“My Voice” by Nicole McLean

Nicole McLean - 'Survivor'

All of my life, I’ve been really blessed to be in pretty good health. Aside from a few scrapes and bruises — and one broken arm when I was six — I’ve spent very little time in doctor’s offices or at the hospital. Not so much as an allergy or hay-fever to slow me down. I was that person who assumed that good health was something that everyone had or everyone could have if they tried hard enough. Ahhh, the bliss of ignorance.

At 39, I was diagnosed with stage 3a breast cancer. To say that my entire world shifted on its axis wouldn’t begin to explain how much change I experienced and how difficult it was for me to accept those changes. Even as I was going through each stage of my treatment: chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation and recently reconstruction – I felt a little numb. Like I was sort of dreaming that this was happening and at any moment I would wake up. But it hasn’t happened yet.

My story as a survivor is about wearing the mask. Or rather, wearing another mask. I am a young, black, single woman with no kids working in corporate America. I wear the mask everyday as part of my survival tactics I use to maintain my sanity in a world that often seems to be unsure how to handle me. There’s something about that combination that seems a little odd to people.  So, I put them at ease by rocking the mask of the carefree girl, just zooming through life. I realized just this morning that I have added another layer to my mask – breast cancer survivor.

I used to look at women who were breast cancer survivors with awe. I was inspired by their courage and strength in the face of something so overwhelmingly scary. I lost one aunt to breast cancer and though we weren’t particularly close, finding out how she died scared me to my core. I think most women will tell you that the fear surrounding breast cancer is so real and so thick that it often feels like a ghost chasing you when breast cancer strikes too close to home. At least, that is how it felt for me. I had a second aunt diagnosed with breast cancer just a few years ago and because she and I were closer, it hurt me so deeply. I felt that she would be okay but I still feared losing her to this big scary disease. In my mind, these women had a strength that I simply did not have and really did not understand because they were “survivors”. I could never be that. Or so I thought.

Getting diagnosed with such an advanced cancer at (what I feel was) such a young age was devastating. Is devastating still. My heart is broken in those places where I had dreams of a future with kids and a husband. Dreams of a long life where I finally… FINALLY wrote and sold an award-winning novel that was in turn, optioned as a screenplay. One phone call from a doctor I’ve only seen once in my life, for my needle biopsy, took my future away. All the air was sucked from my body and now, almost two years later, it hasn’t returned.

But… I wear the mask. I mask my fears and my worries, only allowing them to peek through momentarily when I’m alone. Or when I’m feeling particularly brave on my blog. And sometimes when I’m having a heart to heart conversation with my mother. Most of the time, I wear the mask of alright-ness. I feel that I owe that to the people around me.

I have crumbled into a heap of tears more times than I can count. I honestly believe that I cried for the entire four months of my chemotherapy. I laughed some too but mostly I cried. Until I got around someone else – didn’t really matter who that person was – I fixed my mask and I tried to be brave. For them.

Its odd to see that in print but the truth is that I wear the mask of accepting this fate and handling this disease with grace in order to keep people from being afraid of me. I don’t want to be assigned with this ghost’s face instead of my own, so I wear a mask of being cool and handling things well and hope that no one notices the cracks. I know in my heart that they do, even if they pretend that they don’t see it. I feel a bit of anger and I hide that too behind my mask. Anger at this disease. Anger at the loss of my future. Anger at the loss of my breast, my hair, my sensual nature and my confidence. I am angry that my body is still swollen from radiation that I had a year ago. I am angry that even with a newly reconstructed breast I still feel disfigured and unbeautiful. Even worse, I am angry that I am so shallow to even care. I stuff all of that anger and pain behind the mask of “breast cancer survivor” because it is not right to feel this raw and to subject other people with it. But I do.

I still look at breast cancer survivors with awe. From behind my mask I keep asking myself, how do they do it? And make it look so easy? I do take some comfort in knowing that my mask is holding up well enough that there are women who look at me with that same awe and wonder. That makes it a little better. My hope is that until a cure is found for this disease, standing strong as a survivor is the best gift I can give to the women who will follow behind me.