Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Brain On Cancer

When something traumatic happens in your life, the moment it occurs it's burned into your memory and in your body, never to be forgotten. It’s how people know where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger exploded, when the Twin Towers fell.

On May 15, 2015 I received a phone call that is similarly burned into my memory. The phone call was from a radiologist telling me that the breast tissue they biopsied the day before was, indeed, cancer.

Cancer. Me. Cancer.

From that moment on I was whipped into a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments and disbelief, decisions and numbness, advice and anger and crippling fear.

I remember distinctly that the medical team said that in a year, treatment would be done and I’d be embarking on a new, cancer-free life. They said that this year would fly by, but I didn’t believe them. How could a year that would be filled with 3 surgeries, 5 months of chemotherapy, 7 weeks of radiation, and countless biopsies, scans and tests, “fly by”?

What’s so troubling about this whole concept is not only that they were right - it’s that I barely remember any of it.

Of course I remember all of the details and events, I’m not saying that I have amnesia. But somehow my mind has shellacked those details with a layer of “remove” that keeps me from remembering how hard it was, how much pain I felt, how much fear and anxiety I had, and how alone I felt. Someone might think this remove is a good thing, but I’m feel robbed of the experience that has newly shaped me, and shaped me so completely. To be honest, I feel numb. Numb... all the time.

People ask me how it was to go through chemo and I say, “I tolerated it really well, luckily.” They ask about what it was like to try to save my hair and I say, “It was really hard to lose it, but I’m glad I look ok with short hair.” They ask how I feel these days and I say, "I'm getting better and better!" It’s like I’ve forgotten how devastating the whole ordeal was, to be reduced to sound bites of optimism. The day to day difficulties are just glossed over so that my experience is only as palpable as my last headache or my last heartbreak.

And I’m not meaning to do this. It’s how my brain is allowing things to be remembered in those moments.

I know why the mind does that. It’s such a miraculous thing - it shields the psyche from giving us too much to deal with. How amazing is that? The brain has a way to cloud memory so we don’t remember the depth of physical or emotional trauma. And I could go on very nicely under this guise and just rebuild my life, but I always have this nagging feeling that I’m overlooking something, and I don’t want to do that. The intuitive empath in me won’t let me ignore myself for long.

After treatment ended in April I began seeing a therapist, because I knew that finding healthy ways to manage stress would be important in maintaining my health going forward. What I learned was that there was far more to deal with than just stress management. Unfortunately, I learned that there’s a new battle on the horizon, one that rears its head only after treatment is over -- the battle for my mental well-being.

One of the things I had been beating myself about was the fact that I didn’t “take advantage” of the extra time I had to reflect and plan while I was in treatment. I had reduced my work schedule and had every intention of being proactive with my down time to really focus on my emotional needs. (As I type this, I recognize the oxymoron of that last statement -- being proactive with my downtime? Hello!!) What I found was that I was too tired, physically depressed, and emotionally numb to focus on anything other than surviving the damned treatment. And the workhorse in me has seen that as lazy and self-indulgent.

Is it turns out, there was no real way to deal with my mental health while in a physical battle for my life. We all know that chemo and radiation have devastating effects on the body, so naturally all of my effort went into into merely staying alive. My therapist invited me to see my first year post-physical treatment as the time to be in emotional/mental treatment - which means I’m right on schedule, and at least 8 more months of mental healing to deal with.

So I’m going to be spending some time reflecting on my experiences and posting them here. I’m sharing on this blog for a variety of reasons. One - I hope that other cancer patients & survivors might find some comfort and solidarity in what I'm writing. Two - I hope that I can help people understand what happens to someone who goes through a trauma like this - just because treatment is done we are not "fine" or "finished." Three - I want a place where I’m forced to be open, because it’s way too comfortable to shut everyone and everything out (especially for introverts like me.)

So... I thought I would share some stream consciousness I wrote on the anniversary of my diagnosis:

May 15, 2016.
One year ago today was a Friday.
It’s the day I found out I had breast cancer.

I lost my innocence that day.
The innocence that made me believe that if you do all the right things you’ll be safe.
Because cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Being good doesn’t get you a pass.

I became isolated that day.
Doctors don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
Their focus is on getting rid of the cancer first. All else comes second.
Friends. Family. Colleagues...don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
They just want you to be fine.
And you’re a jerk if you tell them just how un-fine you really are.
Because no one wants to know the truth.
They say they do, but then you have to take care of them, too.

I became a “warrior” that day.
And all other kinds of ridiculous nicknames.
I don’t want to be a fucking warrior for fighting a disease.
I want to be a warrior because I fight for my theater company to have a voice, I fight for actors to find empowerment, I fight to be the best friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, boss, coach I can be.
Not for getting cancer. Fucking cancer. I didn’t choose that fight.

I became a sage that day.
Because when I was in high school I had this small inner voice that told me that I would get cancer. That statistics can be in my favor all they want to be, but someone is always on the wrong side of those numbers, and I knew that would be me.
Years later I now accept that my mind and body just know things sometimes.

I became lost that day.
The path has always been obvious, and when it hasn’t I created one for myself.
Now, I know I’m still moving but everything is murky.
Everything has weight. Everything has meaning.

As I type innocence, isolation, warrior, sage, lost - I experience these things like they happened that first time. I’m grieving. I’m aching. And a new experience starts to grow.

If I’m lost, that means there’s nothing left than to be found.
I lost “innocent” but found “sage.”
If I was called a warrior, it must mean I had something to fight for.

Damn it.

I don’t want to be a better person for having had cancer.
I don't want to be an after-school special on self-love.

But even when I want to revel in the darkness, I recognize that’s only defined by the light. And as I allow myself to grief, I start to feel healed. I start to feel lost, and then I realize that I can take ANY path I choose because I can’t see the old one anyway.

So this blog may reveal pain and anguish as I trace my steps at each milestone a year ago, but I’m starting to see that it’s the only way to find my way back to center.

Thanks for bearing with me.


To see my description of what happened the day I was diagnosed, check out my first post, “Yes, I Have Breast Cancer.” And here is a link to all of my cancer posts.

To experience the art I’ve created through grief, come see me in the play GETTING OUT with The Seeing Place Theater - July 16-August 7, 2016.


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit


  1. I don't claim to even begin to know exactly what you went through. All I will say is that I love you, and I am here for you for whatever. A hug, a shoulder, a meal, a drink, a stupid silly distracting event, whatever you might need. Love you

  2. Dear Erin, you were amazing before you got cancer and are amazing now. I have so much admiration for you to deal honestly with all the conflicting feelings and emotions you are going through. Many blessings on your journey. You are so loved.
    Sarah Rice

  3. Amazing blog and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!


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