The Christmas Napkin

Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery. ~ Bertrand Russell

Have you ever experienced such intense sadness that you couldn’t imagine ever feeling hopeful again?

Maybe, like me, you once stood in the corner at a New Year’s Eve party you wished you’d skipped. As you watched your friends laugh at a shared joke, you clutched your champagne glass with one hand and with the other, you used the corner of a Santa Claus napkin to catch a tear before it escaped and ruined your perfectly made-up (fake it until you make it) face.

You couldn’t figure out why you didn’t feel like celebrating, especially when everyone assumed you should. After all, you now had a cap of short hair and only one surgery left. Based on their questions about whether you were “excited for your final surgery” or “looking forward to going back to work”, they couldn’t see the volcano of emotion brewing inside. You didn’t understand it either, but you knew that you would never be able to go back to who you were before you heard the doctor say the words, “you have cancer”.

Those three words showed up in my life on October 27, 2009. Perhaps the universe was trying to send me a message to slow down and question whether the stresses of my life were serving me. I guess it worked. At the age of 30, my diagnosis of breast cancer brought my successful career as a professional recruiter, my quest to meet the perfect man, and my obsession with slimming my hips to an abrupt halt.

For the next 15 months, I slogged through treatment. Through the lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, chemotherapy, bi-lateral mastectomy, and reconstruction. Through the murky questions about my future fertility, the blurry chemo-induced mental fog, and the jarring reflection of my baldhead in the mirror.

“This is not my permanent reality” became my daily mantra as I shuffled from my bed to the couch. Imprisoned in my apartment, my friends lived their lives while I watched daytime talk shows and endless Sex in the City re-runs. As Christmas approached and brought with it the end of the worst year of my life, I thought the New Year would make me feel celebratory.

Instead, as I stood there, clutching my Santa Claus napkin, I realized that I’d never felt more isolated or depressed. I wished I could find the lever to the secret trap door that would drop me down through the layers of darkness and into a place where the future finally had more light than dark.

Instead, I woke up on January 1, 2011 hung over, exhausted, and angry that nothing about the year felt fresh. I forced myself off the couch and into the uncharacteristic Vancouver sunshine that morning; the brightness of the day an affront to the darkness I felt inside. I wanted the endless winter rain to return.

As I walked along the seawall near my apartment, I thought about a recent article I’d read by Life Coach, Martha Beck. She suggested that in 2011, instead of thinking about what we wanted to achieve, we picked three words to describe how we wanted to feel.

I knew I didn’t want to stay in the dark and bitter place cancer had dropped me off in. I needed to feel inspired about my life again. I wanted to see what was possible for me instead of staying bitter about what wasn’t. That day, when thinking about what would inspire me, I pictured myself volunteering in Africa. For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt excited.

Even if nothing about the decision made sense on paper, my intuition told me to take the risk. I quit my six-figure job in the spring of 2011 and felt the first real spark of possibility ignite when I set off on a six-week volunteer program to Cape Town, South Africa. My experience working with a group of toddlers at an underfunded daycare changed me forever. As soon as I arrived, I fell in love with the children and throughout my time there, I had constant reminders of our shared humanity. The adversity the people of South Africa had overcome helped me see my own struggles from a fresh perspective. Then, a trip to Victoria Falls to have a bucket-list dream come true reminded me that anything was possible.

After my time in Africa, I came back to Vancouver, packed up my belongings, and gave notice on my apartment. Even though I didn’t have an exact plan and I was terrified by the mounting uncertainty, I couldn’t ignore the big hairy audacious dream growing in my heart. I wanted to create a non-profit to help other cancer survivors volunteer internationally and experience bucket-list adventures as a way of finding possibility, purpose, and connection in their lives after cancer.

So, after telling everyone I met about this dream, I decided to take a giant leap of faith and set off on an Adventure of Hope. This six-month, five-continent trip gave me the chance to experience seven volunteer organizations while visiting countries all over the world. During my time in India, the next phase of the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation dream took root. I wanted to pilot a program for 12 patients and survivors and I wanted to do it there.

A year later, 12 participants from across North America joined me for two weeks of volunteering, cultural exchange, and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Taj Mahal. We analyzed our model for volunteering as a healing mechanism. We laughed. We cried. We built lifelong friendships and we decided the dreaming must continue. Since then, we’ve piloted a two-day program in Los Angeles and introduced our second group of participants to a life-changing experience in India. In 2015, we plan to expand to three international programs, which includes launching our first adventure in Africa.

Since that walk on the Vancouver sea wall on January 1, 2011, I realized that the only way for me to make sense of the misery I’d been through was to give it meaning. I chose to become a cultivator of hope. For me, hope is the willingness to grieve what you’ve lost while choosing to believe in new possibilities for your life. It’s like holding onto a thick rope while walking through a dark cave. You can’t yet see anything, but you know that if you keep walking and keep holding the rope, you will eventually emerge out of the cold damp of the cave and into the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Although this journey has not been easy, there is nothing I would change. It’s been almost four years since I heard those fateful words and although cancer is part of my story, it will never be my whole story.