I was sure that I would make it

Photo of a couple sitting at the beach (Stockbyte / Thinkstock) Harriet, 67 years 

"I felt like a lot of other women: I was at a complete loss. I just did everything that the doctor suggested. I didn't have a clue about anything and had never looked into the subject."

I had always led a healthy life and was absolutely convinced that I would never get cancer. Then, one day in 1986, I found a lump in one of my breasts while having a shower. But the idea of cancer didn’t cross my mind. I went to see a doctor, and he diagnosed breast cancer. I was devastated. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me.

I was on my own and the tears were streaming down my face as I drove home. When I got home I had to tell my husband and my two sons, who were 18 and 14 years old at the time, what was up. They were devastated as well. It was almost unbearable to see the looks on their faces. It was actually worse than hearing the diagnosis "cancer." Having to tell my two sisters, who I am very close to, was awful as well.

My gynecologist was very supportive

I felt like a lot of other women: I was at a complete loss. I just did everything that the doctor suggested. I didn't have a clue about anything and had never looked into the subject. I was fortunate to have such a good gynecologist. He was very caring and always found time to talk with me at length. But in the end I had to have my breast removed.

My husband and family were really supportive during that time. My husband said straight away that it didn't bother him and that I shouldn't worry.

But the year after my diagnosis was very hard for us, because we were going through some difficulties with our business too and that really took its toll. We had to file for bankruptcy. We were worried sick. We thought that we'd never make it. I had no time to think about myself and my illness.

Recurrence after 13 years

I was still sure that I would make it though. I was fine for 13 years. Then a lump was found in my other breast during a routine check up. I also had to have surgery for that second tumor. I was so physically and mentally exhausted that the worries about my health and our financial troubles really got the better of me. I felt completely empty inside. Two years later they then found another tumor in my armpit.

Around the same time my son was diagnosed with a benign tumor on the adrenal gland. They only found out that the tumor was benign after they had operated on him. It was all just too much for me. I was at my wits' end.

It really hit me hard. I wasn't able to recover physically that quickly and in late 2006 I had another recurrence. But since then I've been doing well and I don't have any metastatic tumors.

When I was really at rock bottom I started to pray and meditate more often and more intensely. That gave and still gives me strength. I found this energy inside me that still overwhelms me to this day. Through meditation and prayer I was able to forgive everybody who had hurt me in the past. I am at peace with the world now, I harbor no hatred or ill. I am doing well now.

Our family stuck together

My family stuck together while I was trying to get over the illness. But my husband and I made a few mistakes with our children at first. We thought that they would be too young to understand and didn't really tell them everything. At some stage they realized and asked us why we had kept some things from them. I know now that it was a mistake.

I didn't talk to my family much about how I was. I knew that they were worried, and I didn't want them to worry even more. But my husband could always tell when an important appointment was coming up. I was often panicky, had diarrhea and was over-sensitive. I was just far too scared. And I knew that living that way wasn't good for me.

There were lots of things that we generally did not talk about. We were both scared of hurting the other person. But my husband has never talked much about his feelings. He had no idea how I was feeling emotionally, and vice versa. We actually needed help but we didn't know who we could turn to. We were also having financial difficulties at the time.

Support from psychotherapy, self-help and sports

After my last operation I got in touch with a psychotherapist. She is very good. She has really helped me. She has helped me to get over my fears. I talked about a lot of things that I wasn't able to talk to my husband about. She gave me good suggestions for discussions and how we could work through it all together. When I became ill again, my husband was very scared that he would end up alone. Looking that possibility in the face was very painful for him. I was able to talk to my psychotherapist about all of that and get advice.

Going to a self-help group was also a great support. Most of the women also had family problems on top of their illness. We stayed strong for each other. We discuss our worries, talk about our experiences, invite people in to speak about different subjects, share information, and go on excursions and organize social events. It’s good for me.

I do lots of sports now. I go Nordic walking at least once a week, do yoga, and in the summer I go out on my bike and go swimming. Swimming is really good for my arm. I got a lymphedema in my arm after the operation on my armpit and both of my arms turned very chubby and my body really swelled up. After six months of lymph drainage and regular swimming I don’t have any problems anymore.

I have to plan my work well

My grandchildren shower me with love, which really soothes my soul. My husband, my sister and I often go for days out, go for a coffee or have a games night. We really enjoy doing things like that.

I am not as physically fit as I used to be. I have to spread my work out well and force myself to leave things for a later date. I'm usually quite good at that, but sometimes I do find it hard to accept my own limitations.

I also think about death. My husband and I talk about it, too. As long as I have the strength and energy, I will do everything I can to have a life worth living. But when that is no longer the case, I will surrender myself to God.

Negative thoughts get me nowhere

One thing I would do differently today is be a lot more open with my kids and also listen to their advice. They accused me of cutting myself off from them, but they don't hold it against me. They say that I never opened up and only told them select information. But somehow I couldn't help it.

I used to be quite a negative person, I don't know why. That has changed. At some stage I realized that negative thoughts would get me nowhere. It took a lot of effort to turn my rather negative outlook on life into a positive one. It was hard, and I still have to fight that negativity every now and again. Nowadays I know that a healthy mind is the only way to a healthy body. My life is still wonderful, and there is so much that I can enjoy.
 

Acknowledgement

Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.

The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.

Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.