Young widow Cathy Bueti tells a witty yet poignant tale of combating breast cancer while on a quest for love…
As a little girl I often wondered what my life would be like when I grew up. When I was a teenager I started to dream about my wedding and who I would marry. I had my dress all picked out before I ever had a boyfriend. I was sure the first time I saw Paul that I had just met the man I would marry someday. I was only 15 and it was a blind date. Actually, I was sure it was fate despite the fact that our wedding day didn’t come until eight years and many breakups later. We married on October 31, 1992. It was my fairytale.
Sadly, in less than two years my life completely fell apart. It was a bright, sunny, beautiful day in September of 1994. I returned home from running an errand to find a police car parked in front of my house. It all happened so fast and yet felt as though it was moving in slow motion. It was surreal. I will never forget the whispers from the staff in the emergency room at the hospital or how it felt to be led into the morgue. I will never forget seeing the love of my life lying on a metal drawer with a toe tag and wearing only his underwear. There was only a trickle of blood running down the side of his forehead. I will never forget how cold his hands felt when I touched his dead body. It was a car accident that instantly took his life that day. Paul and his younger brother were killed in a head-on collision. My husband was only 26 and his brother 18. Losing him was the hardest thing I have ever gone through. Even harder than the cancer that would come knocking seven years later. So at 25 I was a widow. I remember telling my Grandma that when I lost Paul I was getting all the bad stuff out of the way early in life. I thought I would be immune to anything bad happening ever again. Little did I know how wrong I was.
Getting comfortable with the single life took me quite a few years. At first it felt as though I was cheating on my dead husband. I couldn’t even think about dating for two years after Paul’s death. I spent that time waiting for the nightmare to be a joke and for him to come home. I could often be found curled up in a ball reading the love letters he passed me in the hallways during high school. Going back to work right after the accident saved me. I somehow found solace in a “normal” daily routine, but I dreaded going home alone to an empty house.
I began online dating two years before I would get diagnosed with breast cancer. At 31 years old, just as I was finally getting my life back together, I found a lump in my left breast. I had no family history and thought I was too young. I worked in a hospital as an occupational therapist but avoided doctors like the plague when it came to my own health. I waited three months before I went to a doctor to get my lump checked. The same instinct that let me know Paul was “the one” was also telling me that this lump was the bad kind – the cancer kind. I would obsessively check the lump everyday hoping for the moment it would magically disappear; I was living in denial.
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When I finally got myself to the gynaecologist the first thing I heard from him was “don’t worry, you are too young to have breast cancer.” I think that young women hear this too often from doctors. It’s so dangerous because it can lead to this age group getting diagnosed at a later stage of the disease. For sure, it was exactly what I wanted to hear, but my heart knew he was wrong. After my exam he sent me home with a script for my first mammography.
The mammo wasn’t as scary as it seemed, however the next step was a biopsy. Even when I saw the surgeon who would remove the lump I heard once again that I was too young and it was probably nothing. Luckily he removed the entire mass because the tumour I had was hidden inside a larger lump of fat. I finally felt lucky for the fat on my body because it is most likely the only way I found the lump in the first place.
All of this was happening while I continued to meet guys online. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to put a wrench in my well-laid out plan to find love. I was diagnosed with stage two invasive ductal carcinoma in May of 2001. I faced losing my breast as well as my hair and wondered if I would even survive. A mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction was scheduled for August of that year. The doctors would be using my belly fat to make a new breast. At least I could look forward to a tummy tuck – no more sit-ups for me. Somehow I had to find a bright side.
As I was facing 10 hours of surgery and subsequent chemotherapy including hair loss I was not ‘fessing up to the guys I was dating. As long as I didn’t look the part I figured why say anything when I wasn’t even sure if there would be a second or third date? Dating was tough enough before cancer. I wasn’t sure how to handle it bald and boobless. I had low self-esteem my whole life. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel looking at myself in the mirror.
Losing my hair was harder for me than losing my breast. It sounds crazy but I think the hair loss was worse because that was when I really felt like a sick person. It was when I officially felt like a cancer patient. At least I could hide my reconstructed, scarred boob under my clothes. The day it all fell out I vividly recall pulling hair out in clumps and piling it up on the side of the tub while I was showering.
Once I began chemo and my hair fell out there was no hiding it any longer. I started telling my dates sooner rather than later. I didn’t even know what I was thinking, putting myself out there. I felt completely undateable. It felt like I no longer had a right to be looking for love without a boob and no hair. I certainly wasn’t feeling sexy. No stilettos or low-cut tops for me. Neuropathy pain in my feet forced me to wear comfy shoes. Menopause from chemo made me feel like an old lady, no longer a sexy single girl.
My dating escapades ranged from the guy who thought I would be easier to get into bed because I had cancer, to the guy who bowed out gracefully when I told him. The worst of the lot was the guy who patted himself on the back, letting me know I should be glad I was dating “someone like him” because not many guys out there would want a girl with cancer. At that point I just about gave up. I had tried so hard to maintain hope of finding love but things were looking pretty grim… Until I met Lou.
Just as I was finishing with chemo I put myself out there one more time. Lou and I started chatting online and during that first conversation I told him about the cancer – I held nothing back. He shared with me that he had just lost his mother to breast cancer a month prior. Despite all that he still wanted to meet me. As I got ready for my date with Lou I felt nervous as I drew on my eyebrows, put mascara on that one lonely eyelash I had left and tried to put a cute hair clip in the short wig I hated. Six months after that night we were engaged. I had found a man who could see past all of the scars and the bald head to the person I was inside. We were married on May 31, 2003. For me dating became a way for me to keep living. I wanted to hold onto the parts of my life that made sense. Working, having fun with friends and dating were important parts of my life. I wanted to be hopeful.
Over the years Lou and I have been married we have suffered the loss of his sister and my Dad, both to cancer. Survivor’s guilt is something I am learning to live with. I began to really think about how to handle my fear when I finished up treatment and was told I could just get back to my life. At the time I wasn’t even sure what that life was any more. What I began to find though was the more time I spent doing the things I loved the more I would lose all track of time. I began writing, taking pictures and painting. All of the clutter in my mind would shut off and I was only focused on enjoying what was right in front of me. Creativity was helping me control the fear. It was a way for me to empower myself.
CATHY’S TOP TIPS FOR COPING WITH BREAST CANCER
Be your own advocate. Speak up for yourself, ask questions and always bring someone with you to doctor’s appointments. It also helps to write things down.
If you’re a young single woman know that it is ok if you want to put dating on hold during your treatment. Everyone is different. Do what feels right.
Try to maintain your daily routine as much as possible. Go out with friends and continue to work if you’re well enough to do so. It can help ground you.
Get creative. Find something you are passionate about and change your focus. It can be something as simple as taking a walk or listening to your favourite tunes. It helps to get you in the moment.
Reach out to organisations supporting young women with cancer. The issues for young women are unique and it helps to talk to those who know what you are going through.
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For more information on Cathy Bueti, visit cathybueti.com. Her book Breastless In The City is available at Amazon.com