Seven days ago I completed treatment for the Estrogen Positive Receptor (ER-Positive) Cancer—the most common type of breast cancer diagnosed today. It was detected in February during a routine mammogram/sonogram. Ever since I have been deluged with calls, texts, and social media posts from people congratulating me and asking how it feels.

Many clearly expect me to respond with words like exultant, joyful, powerful to describe my emotions, and to agree with their belief that I am a heroine for combating this illness during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

But I don’t feel exultant, joyful, or powerful and certainly not heroic.

What I am experiencing is a constellation of disturbing reactions at what should be a triumphant moment. There is alternately—and sometimes simultaneously—depression, fear, irritability, exhaustion, hypersensitivity, and spaciness.

Given a disturbing finding by the American Cancer Society (ACS), I am also relieved and extremely grateful. Carmen Guerra, MD, a national board scientific officer at ACS informed me via email that “There has been an unprecedented drop in screening rates due to the pandemic, specifically an 87% reduction in mammograms performed during COVID-19.”

This jibes with a recent Science Magazine editorial penned by National Cancer Institute director Norman Sharpless, MD, who forecast that over the next decade the pandemic will result in nearly 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancer.

After my cancer diagnosis, I endured an MRI, Echo, CT Scans, EKGs, X-rays, an outpatient lumpectomy and axillary node dissection, eight rounds of bimonthly chemo (each preceded by a test for COVID-19), followed by 29 sessions of radiation that— how appropriate!—culminated during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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Since chemo treatments made me immunocompromised and because there was a virus raging outside my door, I was forced to isolate in my one-bedroom apartment. No visits from my sister or close friends—except through Zoom—and I became reliant on my partner, too. Paul did all the shopping and driving—ferrying me to and from approximately 70 medical appointments.

Cold Comfort And A Little Help from Raquel

Through the ordeal, I opted not to disclose the cancer to my psychotherapy patients. Instead, I chose to conduct our virtual sessions wearing a wig close to my natural chocolate hair color and no one was the wiser. I dubbed the wig ‘Raquel’ to commemorate purchasing the hairpiece from the Raquel Welch line.

Last week, the day I’d longed for with the fervency of a lovesick teenager arrived. After my 29th and final time on the treatment table, arms positioned above my head like I was on a rack as my exposed boob was lit up, I “graduated” from treatment with the traditional ‘ring the bell’ ceremony. I brought in cookies for my wonderful Mt. Sinai medical team and did a little jig as one of the nurses captured the scene on my iPhone.

At that moment I felt fantastic! Obviously, there hadn’t been any nuance to the thrill of ending chemo mid-August, bidding finito to the painful process of having an IV inserted into my increasingly-resistant veins—the entry point through which the poison was injected into my body. It was a total relief to no longer experience the side effect of feeling like roadkill squared afterward. And I’m not likely to miss anything about my five-day-a-week radiation schedule.

[Click to Read: The Dilemma of High Functioning Depression]

But there was a comfort in all those doctor visits, tests, and treatments.

They were indisputable proof that I wasn’t alone in my fight. I could close my eyes and envision the monsters inside my body being vanquished by the mighty women championing me. Yes, my treatment team is all female!

Between treatment rounds, my calls to my chemo or radiation oncologist were returned almost before I put down my iPhone. Suddenly I’m Cinderella before her fairy godmother appeared in a puff of magical wish-fulfillment – waiting forlornly for a knowledgeable healer to address my fears.

On My Own

Reassuringly, I have company in these feelings of suddenly being cast adrift. Allison Forti, PhD, LCMHC, NCC, has more than 10 years clinical experience working with cancer survivors. She helped me understand these perplexing emotions.

“During treatment the primary focus tends to be survival and trying to figure out how to manage life with your new treatment schedule and psycho-social-spiritual-physical side effects,” she explained. “Regular care and monitoring by a supportive medical team helped you feel safe and when it comes to a halt it leaves survivors to figure out what happened and how to move forward on your own.”

A Facebook friend who is four years removed from her ‘ring the bell’ day shared, “I think the jubilation will come. Probably each of us has decided when that is. I’ve been waiting until next May when I get my five-year free and clear.” (Five years is the benchmark for a return of cancer no longer seeming likely.) My cyber-friend added, “Come May I’m gonna celebrate the sh- – out of that!”

So, as I embark on the next step—hormone therapy in the form of Tamoxifen for the next five years—I’m also planning to join a monthly, virtual support group for cancer survivors through Gilda’s Club. Hopefully, this source of validation and support will help me work through the dejection of feeling like a baby bird thrown from the nest.

In its way, this softer stage of the cancer journey feels more fraught than back in February when my life was turned upside down with news I’d never dreamt I’d hear.

While I appreciate your congratulations and happiness on my behalf please don’t expect a “Rah, rah, sound the trumpets!” response. Right now I’m pretty excited—and thrilled to report—my hair news. It’s growing back quickly, so please, please share my joy that sooner versus later, Raquel will be retired.

Last Updated: Oct 28, 2020