My long-time assistant Amy Cella, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I asked to interview Amy about her experience, and Amy bravely chose to allow us to enter into her “conversation group” and share a bit about what she has learned these past few months.
Nicole: What advice, if any, would you give to someone hearing the words for the first time, “You have breast cancer”?
Amy: The first thing that comes to mind is, “stay in the moment”. The diagnosis feels so big and it’s easy to be completely overwhelmed. The second thing that comes to my mind is to be sure of who your team is. If you don’t already know the people who will support you, it’s a good time to start figuring it out. You’ll need them.
Nicole: What exactly does “stay in the moment” mean to you?
Amy: For me, it was making my mind stop running ahead. I had to force myself to only think of the next thing to do, or the next thing to think through. When I was first diagnosed or waiting on test results I would get way ahead of myself. There were so many scenarios of what could happen, that if I let myself go down that road, I would be lost. I had to stay in the present moment and think, “okay, what is the next thing I need to do?”
N: People like to say things like, “you’ll be okay”. How does that make you feel?
A: I found those particular words upset me.
N: Uh Oh, I hope I never said that!
A: A lot of people say that. Now, I do know people’s hearts are good and I know they are just trying to find words. In fact I’ve probably said those words to someone in the past, but the truth is we don’t know if anyone is going to be okay. We hope they are, but we can’t say for sure if people without cancer are going to be okay let alone people with cancer. While we want them to be okay, we should resist giving assurances that we can’t control. It’s false assurance and it’s not comforting. At best it’s annoying, at worst it makes people like me angry. I mean, I’m the one going to the appointments, getting tests and reading every night about cancer and I don’t know that I’m going to be okay, so how in the world do you know I’m going to be okay? I’m trying to get to the place that whatever happens, in the greater scheme of things, I’ll be okay—but that is in the greater scheme of things, not in my fight with cancer. I have no guarantees that the prognosis, treatment course or outcome will be okay; I can’t put my trust in that.
N: What are some practical things you’ve done to help you get through treatment?
A: Identifying my support team has helped me get through this. Like, I thought I might want rides to and from radiation. It has ended up that radiation has gone smoothly and I haven’t had to call on anyone, but I was fully aware that I could at any point—and that made a big difference.
N: You’ve spoken openly in the past about being in recovery for an issue you wanted to gain some control over. Would you say that being in a recovery program has helped you face cancer in a different way than you would have had you not been through recovery?
A: No question. I have learned through recovery to identify what’s going on inside me. It’s helped me learn a different way of dealing with things. Being in a support group has given me new tools to process my life. In group I can talk for three minutes and no one gives advice or input, they just listen. It gives me an outlet to say whatever I need to say without judgment, but also without expecting anyone else to solve anything for me.
Recovery has also taught me to listen to my body. This has been an enormous help in my cancer fight. When I’m tired, I stop; when I’m hungry, I eat. Sounds simple, but learning this has been a process. I needed permission to listen to what my body was telling me and help in learning to provide it.
N: Please tell me there are groups like that available for cancer patients?
A: Yes! There are tremendous resources available. I already had a great support structure going into cancer, but groups are out there to provide support for those in treatment. Contact the American Cancer Society and they will be given more resources than they know what to do with!
N: What is one thing only cancer can teach you?
A: I have two. The first one is related to what we were just talking about. Having pain others can’t see has caused me to be aware of the battles that others may be fighting that I can’t see. The woman checking me out at the grocery store may have the same three tiny tattoos on her breast that I do, or the jerk that just yelled at me from the crosswalk may have lost his daughter to a drunk driver. It gives me pause and makes me stop, or back off. Cancer taught me that.
The other thing cancer has reinforced in me is the concept of “staying in the moment.” Looking back, I don’t feel like I’ve lost valuable time undergoing treatment in the last three months because I’ve been present through it all. When I was going in for surgery, a friend of mine said, “Don’t check out, be there for yourself.” Cancer has taught me to be there for myself. To keep my eyes and my heart open. I want to be conscious of my life whether I’m fighting cancer or going to the park. Living this way, cancer can rob me of nothing.
N: How has your faith played a role in your treatment?
A: A decade ago, you wrote a drama on breast cancer. The character says, “I had to tell God I got cancer. And God says, I know and I’m here.” I have felt God’s heart breaking with my heart. I have felt his presence with me in whatever I’m experiencing. In all the decisions I’ve had to make I’ve felt he’s been there.
One thing I’ve tried to do each day is to ask his will for me and for the courage to carry it out. Whether that was going to a doctors appointments or going to radiation or to the park, it felt manageable to me because it was his will for the day. Just today. His will for me was not outside of my normal life—it was right in the middle of my normal life. I never felt like my faith was separate from my treatment and I would get back to it when it was over—he never left me. Rather than seek what my treatment was for the day, it was so much more freeing to seek his best for me. If that was radiation, I knew he’d give me the strength to get through it.
N: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
A: I want to talk for a minute about the amazing people I’ve met in the medical community. My oncologist, my radiation team, the radiation oncologist—everyone that has worked on my treatment, has made an impact on my life—not just physically, but emotionally as well. If not for cancer, I would not have encountered these incredible people. I wouldn’t have even known about this group of heroes, living less than a miles away from me, working every day to save lives.
And one last thing, while I didn’t want cancer, I have found a new freedom in asking for things. I like being the one asked, so it was hard for me to do the asking. Within my circle of friends I’ve asked things of them that I needed and that’s a new place for me. Getting sick helped me get over that awkwardness and enter a new place with my friends—trusting them to be there for me.
Nicole: Thank you, Amy. It’s a privilege to be on your “team”.