Anniversaries are funny things. From celebrating a wedding anniversary, sobriety milestones, friendships, years on the job, being cancer-free, your first house, we mark our personal accomplishments with joyous occasions. Sometimes, however, the anniversaries we remember are not so joyous: the death of a parent or a child, the end of a relationship or a major health scare. And even if we don’t mentally remember or consciously think about the trauma or sadness or loss we’ve experienced, our bodies seem to remember.
My old friend Sidney used to make it a habit of calling me every Sunday afternoon to bring some levity to the day that regularly found him in a funk. At the time, he was estranged from his children, a son and a daughter. Sunday was the day they used to touch base, catch up, and he would tell them how much they were loved.
“When Sundays come around, Di, I just find myself feeling blue,” he’d say. “ I think it has something to do with the memory of how good I used to feel talking with my kids.”
He always felt so sad to me on those days.
Memories, like anniversaries, are also curious. A day of the week, a smell, a song or an event have the ability to open a monsoon of memories about something we may not have thought of, consciously, for months or even years. In a 2012 article in Psychology Today, the author Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D. explains that: “Remembering an event, a situation, or a person can evoke a shiver of excitement, the heat of anger, or the anguish of grief. Although emotion that is activated by a memory may not be felt as intensely as the actual experience, the recall can be enjoyable or painful nonetheless. Emotional memory adds credibility to the notion that thoughts can trigger emotion just as the activation of emotion can create cognitions.”
For many of us, October is one big emotional memory!
Designated as a month-long effort to raise awareness, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was established in 1985 as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca, a leading manufacturer of oncology drugs). In 1993, President Bill Clinton designated the third Friday in October as National Mammography Day and proclaimed the month a national observance. Though initially designated by a peach ribbon (see documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” about Charlotte Haley, the “creator of the first breast cancer ribbon”), some historians say that the ubiquitous pink ribbon became the month’s symbol when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed them out in 1991 to participants in the New York City race for breast cancer survivors.
For too many women in this country, October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month stirs up painful memories. To those who have lost family, friends and spouses to a disease that is estimated to claim 41,760 women in the United States this year alone, October can be a trigger to the bitter effects of breast cancer. To survivors, it’s a reminder of the pain of a mastectomy and of changes to our bodies through surgery, chemo and radiation.
For some, October reminds us of a journey we never wanted to take.
A year ago last month, October 16, I was in Seattle spending an entire day with what would become my breast cancer team, learning about my surgical options, post surgery treatment and what to expect from a process that could take as long as a year. Eight weeks ago I had the final surgery on my breast reconstruction that began a year and a month ago. I was beyond relieved that the journey was almost over and, despite some initial post-surgical discomfort, thought I was doing pretty well.
Then it hit me.
Seemingly overnight, I found myself more emotional than usual, occasionally overcome with intense feelings of sadness. Unusual, because anyone who knows me knows I’m usually an upbeat, optimistic kind of person. A glass half-full type who generally doesn’t dwell on the negatives. Lately, not so much.
Frustrated, I checked in with my sister-in-law, a breast-cancer survivor herself, for a little perspective.
“Isn’t this the anniversary of your mastectomy?” she asked. It is. Nov. 13. “It’s not surprising you’re feeling the way you do. It’s real, it’s natural,” she said, “and it’s hard to understand unless you’ve been through it.”
Our bodies have a way of remembering. Even if we think we’ve moved past trauma, loss and pain, our bodies remind us.
All too often, I think, we want the uncomfortable to be over with; to move away from that which makes us sad, frightened, confused or hurt and back to healthy optimism.
After a year, I was tired of all the rigmarole and desperately wanted to get beyond the surgeries, drainage tubes, bandage changes, drug side effects and transportation maneuvers for follow-ups that had permeated every day of my life since October, 2018. I was ready for the process to be over, so I was surprised when that fleeting sense of relief from my last surgery disappeared.
It’s important to celebrate anniversaries and remind ourselves of life’s changes and the choices we make to live them with passion and tenacity. It’s equally as important to remember the tough anniversaries, the painful ones that teach us about our character, our humility and our community. The anniversaries of adversity are as much a testament to our strengths as they are to our vulnerability.
To those who have survived breast cancer and to the families and friends of those who have not, may October’s memories stoke the warmth of healing, the strength of resolve, the power of friendships and a commitment to the work that still needs to be done.