Breast cancer cells (Photo/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Breast cancer cells (Photo/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Overcoming breast cancer survivor’s guilt

I’m going to let you in on my little secret. I had breast cancer. There, I said it out loud — something that I don’t readily share. I waited 10 years to tell my three daughters and am finally ready to share my story, 15 years later, to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I heard those three dreaded words, “you’ve got cancer,” when I was 36 years old (yep, double chai) while still nursing my 1-year-old daughter (my other daughters were 4 and 6). At a time when the rarity of breast cancer in women under 40 made it an invisible risk to most, I discovered a lump in my breast. I thank God every day for that lump, because it saved my life. With no family history of breast cancer and no annual mammogram screening, at age 36 cancer cells in me were going haywire — I’m pretty sure that’s a scientific term — and I was months away from a death sentence.

I think it’s fair to say my battle against breast cancer differs from many women. I always wonder if there is any other woman in the world who had breast cancer for 26 days. The diagnosis, surgery and a clean bill of health (learning the margins were clear) all happened in under a month. Therein lies the sense of guilt that has kept me from being loud and proud to call myself a survivor. Yes, I had a mastectomy at age 36 and live every day with the physical and emotional scars from that very frightening time, but since I didn’t struggle through chemo and radiation, somehow I’d convinced myself that I got off too easy. It’s been my 15-year struggle with survivor’s guilt.

Five years ago, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the 10-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I told my three daughters, then ages 11, 14 and 16. The moment was exactly as I had planned. I read out loud a letter I had written to them 10 years earlier, while my ordeal was still fresh and raw. The long, long letter captured every detail of those 26 days. I was able to vividly share the unfolding of my cancer story. I read to them my every thought and emotion, how caring and supportive their daddy was, the decisions I quickly made (just take it out), the surgery, reconstruction, recovery and my overall feeling of being blessed. They had been so young and everything happened so quickly and I wanted to protect them from a host of harsh realities. And it’s become clear that I wanted to protect myself, too. But now I hoped they would find strength and inspiration in my story. And it was on me to help them understand their own risks.

So why have I decided to share this most personal experience in a very public way? Truthfully, I’ve been mustering up the courage to break my silence for too long. Every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month I think about other young mothers who may be helped by my story to screen themselves early and often. I think about other young daughters who need mothers to speak openly and honestly about the hard parts of life. And I think about how my journey from silence and stigma to acceptance and pride has made me feel like the true survivor that I am.

I’ll continue to be sensitive in how I share that I had breast cancer — knowing the extent to which so many struggle for their life and do not win their battle against this terrible, nondiscriminating disease. But I suppose my fight isn’t any less difficult than others. And my very private struggle, invisible to most, is a secret no more.

Andrea Sobel
Andrea Sobel

Andrea Sobel lives in Burlingame, where she is a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom.