01 Oct I Was The Gift To Cancer
At the end of a busy Tuesday, I was driving to a party when I received the call that would change my life. After hanging up I decided to change my own.
I knew in that moment how I approached this news and the rest of my life would impact the outcome of both. Sitting in a parking garage, looking beyond the heavy concrete structure into the sunlight, drying my tears I wondered, what to do next. Do I call someone? Do I go home and cry? Do I go to the party? I didn’t want to leave my slowly-deflating, imperfect yet familiar pierced bubble where I did not discuss tumors, treatments, follow- up tests, potential recurrence and neediness that was mine. This bubble had burst. I had an important decision to make: Do I go to the party or not? I didn’t want tears to open my story. I went to the party.
I didn’t call my friends and family with this news for the next 30 days. It wasn’t that difficult. I didn’t have a spouse, children nor parents. My parents had died just three years prior, from cancer. I had three siblings who had busy lives and families of their own. I didn’t want to steal the joy we had all just started finding again and I was afraid of their fear. The tears and fear of cancer were still too palpable. I took the advice my dad always gave, to “go slow.” I remained silent not anticipating that 30 days of reticence would procure epiphanies, flashbacks and more decisions for my new place in the limelight of MY center stage.
I always assumed that upon being given a treatable cancer diagnosis at 45 one suits up, becomes a warrior and forges into battle. My first eye-opening epiphany was that I had a choice to battle cancer! I could choose not to. Having known and become less vocal about my periodic heart-crushing depression, hand-wringing anxiety and thought-out suicidal plans I wondered: why not use this as my pass? Why do people battle cancer anyway? I googled it. Web page after web page revealed people battled for other people: children, grandchildren, spouses even parents. I didn’t have any of these people. I kept googling. People also fight so they can pursue their unrealized dreams. Despite my struggles, I had lived life by my own terms and fulfilled most of my dreams. I felt giddily grateful about my accomplishments and adventures. I felt satisfyingly prideful for having made relationships and experiences with friends and family top priority. Paradoxically, I was thrilled with the insight and instantly nauseated too. I pushed myself away from Google before I threw up on the keyboard. I stopped asking the internet and turned to the ethereal to ask: if I was to battle cancer, why?
This question prompted an elapsed montage of my past struggles and disappointments, epiphanies and miracles. Vignettes that either fed my anxiety and depression or attested to the glory of an invisible collaborator. I’ll call her God. This life review helped me home in on the difference between the life I no longer wanted and a life worth living.
Flashbacks to my parents’ deaths within only four months of each other helped me determine two of my three reasons to fight. Death bed and coffin-side visitors shared how they were inspired by my parents’ joyful effusiveness when interacting with or speaking of their children, grandchildren, amusements or passions. If I was going to live I wanted to be a contribution to others, an inspiration, like they had been. It’s not that they were never frustrated or angry but those negative expressions, even if justifiable, were not the ones that contributed to nor inspired others. The key ingredient to being an inspiring contribution is joy. With this finding, I wondered, “why waste time being anything other than happy? Why waste time expressing anything other than joy?” To be happy and to be a contribution became my first and second reasons to battle cancer. Sounded great! But how?
More flashbacks would reveal “how.” Reflections accumulated into two distinct heaps of striving versus allowing. When I had strived many times things worked out as planned or not at all. Conversely, when I, intentionally or not, allowed God to do it for me things worked out better than I could have ever imagined. With this comforting revelation, I chose my third reason and my “how” to battle cancer: to strive for nothing BUT my relationship with God. 30 days after diagnosis I pulled up my favorites in my phone, called my siblings and with the most cheerful voice I could muster told them I had cancer.
On the outside, from 2010 into 2012 I had 2 lumpectomies, 6 rounds of chemotherapy, 17 bags of Herceptin, 33 zaps of radiation, 4 injections of Lupron, 3 months of aromatase inhibitors and an oopherectomy. It Sucked. I’d cry myself to sleep wishing I’d feel a little better in the morning. But I’d wake, and I didn’t feel better, so I’d get out of bed and go to work because lying around acutely aware of the pain was not an option. I was on a positive denial mission. When asked how I was feeling I declared “I AM well.” On my worst day, I’d gulp “interesting”. There was no way I was owning cancer, it’s toll and certainly not pink ribbons.
On the inside, I was a recovering catholic, yet spiritual. I started reading scripture. My life-line became 2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient, in your weakness my strength is made perfect.” Tears streamed down my cheeks, pooled in my ears and wet my pillow nightly as I let God know that I trusted Him. I had to. I was so sick I couldn’t remember what happiness and wellness felt like so I couldn’t use my reliable tools of envisioning and dreaming. I had only the hope and faith that He would have something glorious for me at the end of the battle. Between relying on faith-filled prayers I received acts of kindness, sweet phone calls and support from friends, family, customers, co-workers and some people I’d never met. Allowing help from God and others became part of my story.
After finishing treatments my brother gave me the gift of a Sisters HOPE retreat with seven other breast cancer survivors. Here, I finally understood why people called me brave or strong. I accepted my new pink bubble. I surrendered to my human frailty and made a deeper commitment to take care of God’s precious child, me. Like oxygen masks on an airplane, I finally understood the gravity of taking care of myself before helping others and I found new dreams for my next phase of life.
I started renovating my 700 square foot bungalow, buying mid-century modern furniture and framing and hanging my own artwork. I installed central air in my house and my 27’ 1986 Sea Ray and I bought a new set of golf clubs. I indulge my passion for fashion daily since I can’t dress cute when I’m dead. I’m planning to visit my friend’s olive grove in New Zealand and visit another friend in Shanghai. I recently visited friends in Mexico followed by two weeks in writing workshops. I am writing a book about those 30 days and my decision to live hoping to let patients, survivors and those struggling with depression and anxiety know that YOU can choose to LIVE for YOU!
I am a volunteer facilitator at the Sisters HOPE retreats helping survivors review their journey, find their new normal and take center stage in their 2nd Act. I model in the Pretty n Pink charity fashion show. I volunteer with Imerman Angels encouraging cancer patients. I golf in the Proud Mary fundraiser so women can have a pre-scanned exact replica breast prosthesis post-mastectomy. My cat and I visit Hospice of Michigan patients in hopes of bringing them comfort and a smile.
To be happy, to be a contribution wherever I am able and to strive for nothing but my relationship with God, I believe, were also God’s reasons for me to battle cancer. I still spend a lot of time in silence listening for His direction. I pay attention to my body and emotions. I trust and follow my intuition and continue having epiphanies like, knowing cancer was not the gift. I was the gift to cancer. I still make deliberate choices and sometimes opt out of situations with my “no” motto: “I didn’t survive for that.” By taking care of myself and choosing happiness every moment I’m able, I hope to give others permission to do the same. Through volunteerism and my memoir I hope to let others know that they alone are worth the fight.