Why I Refuse to Say I 'Have' Breast Cancer

woman with breast cancer

In 2010, one month after she married her soul mate, Melissa Bingham was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. This January, the 35-year-old, who's now the mom of two young boys, received yet another diagnosis: that of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

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Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is cancer that began in the breast but has spread to other parts of the body. A diagnosis means regular treatments, from here on out, to manage symptoms and prevent the disease from growing further.

That said, Melissa doesn't identify as "having" breast cancer. "There is no 'my' or 'I have,'" she says. "I can't and won't write ownership of this disease. It's something I deal with and that's it. I will not make this my life."

Here, in an exclusive interview with CafeMom, Melissa speaks candidly about the journey she's on. 


What are the some of the emotional challenges you face, living with MBC
There's a tsunami of emotional challenges. First and foremost is being sucker-punched by the diagnosis itself, being forcibly made to face your mortality.

Then there's the broken heart that follows. You start to mourn your life immediately -- your love, your children, your family and friends. You start to feel forlorn and regretful for all that you may not experience.

And then somewhere in the pit of darkness, you find some hope ... It keeps you straddling two different worlds. In one, you continue living your life as it was before diagnosis and in the other, you're a cancer patient who's in treatment for the rest of existence.  

What about day-to-day challenges, especially as a mom?
The biggest challenge right now is preventing the emotional levees from breaking. When I really stop and look at my children [Camden, 3, and Nicholas, 10 months], I can't help but feel an overwhelming joy and love and gratitude for them. 

Since diagnosis, that amazing feeling of love is coupled with a crushing sense of despair. The fear of prematurely being torn away from them is intense -- all the time. In those moments ... it's easy to fill up with emotions to a point that it's debilitating.

It's driven me to panic attacks. They have been infrequent, thankfully, but there nonetheless.  

How has your diagnosis changed your relationship with your husband?
Mike is my soul mate ... We constantly declare that no matter how this ends, we wouldn't change any of it, that we're eternally grateful for our journey together, with all of its intensity. 

We both were, and still are, very independent, self-sufficient people ... Now, we've experienced what it's like to have to be completely vulnerable and dependent on each other.

It's opened our communication even further and only made us stronger.

More from CafeMom: I Survived Breast Cancer Because I Disagreed With My Doctor

How open are you about your diagnosis?
I'm very open about the diagnosis now, as I was when originally diagnosed in 2010 at early stage. I started a blog as a place to dump my emotions, a cathartic experience for me as well as an easy way to keep those that care about me updated on what's happening. 

I explain it as a diagnosis -- that I've received a diagnosis. I do not own any part of this diagnosis as best as I can ... My life is so much bigger than this.

What response do you typically receive when you tell people?
[They're] varied, ranging from people who openly admit they don't know anything about cancer to people who are familiar with the "pink" version of breast cancer, who ask me questions about when my treatment is over, to people who have lost someone to metastatic disease of different kinds. 

The most typical response I receive, however, is "I'm sorry," to which I reply with a shrug. There's no response to give. I just move on. 

melissa bingham
Have you explained your diagnosis to your kids?
I feel fortunate at the moment to not have to explain any of this to my boys. I have an intense desire to shield them as long as possible from all of this. 

I have set up email accounts for each of them and I email them little notes here and there -- capturing moments that make me laugh -- or just a note expressing my love to them.

It feels like I'm communicating with the future version of them and that makes it a bit easier on me. I can talk to them about upcoming scans or appointments under the assumption that they'll understand because they'll be older when they get these messages.

I hope they react with a sense of knowing that carries the intensity of my love for them.

Where do you draw your strength?
...From my husband, my children, and my family. Mike supports me and comes to every appointment and scan. He is my true source of determination and courage. With him holding my hand, I feel like I can endure almost anything. 

My mother and sister keep me grounded in what's normal. They push me to keep going forward living the life I want, and being mother to my boys. 

More from CafeMom: 10 Must-Know Scientific Facts About Breast Cancer

What advice can you pass on to people who might know someone with MBC?
First, educate yourself to the degree that you can about what metastatic cancer is, what Dr. Google says about it, and come to the table able to have a discussion that doesn't consist of the patient having to give you a 101. 

Second, don't treat any other metastatic patient like they're one foot in the ground or as if you're sharing what would be your future eulogy for them.

If you do that, f--- you. The idea of one's own death is bad enough. We don't need to be made to feel how badly it makes you feel.

Finally, I'd advise you to treat them like you've always treated them. Talk to them about everyday life, normal things that you would have talked about before diagnosis, include them.

They are still people, not just patients, and they're fighting insanely hard, and enduring so much, to have as much of their normal life as possible. Don't take any of their life away by failing to see beyond the patient.  

This interview has been edited for length.

For resources, outreach, or to connect with other women with breast cancer, visit the Young Survival Coalition.

 

Images via Fotos593/Shutterstock; Steven Cotton

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