By Caitlin Kelly
It’s been quite the rollercoaster, kids!
First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.
What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.
But…what a disorienting time it’s been.
Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.
When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.
Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.
But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.
Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.
This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.
I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.
Tears of fear and anxiety.
Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.
Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.
Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.
Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)
I feel like a lobster cracked open.
I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.
My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.
I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.
But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.
I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.
People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.
That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.