3 Life Lessons From A Cancer Survivor

Why, hello there. It’s been awhile.  Curious to know where I went all these months?  If you follow me on Instagram, you may already know.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Life slowed down and went full speed all at the same time.  Naturally, responsibilities had to shift course.  My blog being one of them. I continued to write my love letter to life, but in a very different way: privately to myself, and individually to my circle of family and friends.  Now I’m ready to include you all again.  I’ll give you some brief backstory so you understand the time frame, and I’ll share more details in separate posts as my energy allows.  Buckle up.

WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED?

My tumor was first discovered at my annual well woman’s appointment February 26th.  I had no idea it was even there as it was so small.  By March 4th, I had my first ever mammogram and breast ultrasound and was told it did not look good. On March 14th, I had a biopsy of the tumor completed. The bad news came in the evening of Friday, March 22nd.  It was official: I had breast cancer.  My calendar was suddenly filled with all kinds of doctor appointments. The worst part was waiting until a treatment plan was setup and battling with my insurance company to move things along. I started treatment May 17th.

First disclaimer. Some people like to consider themselves a cancer survivor only when they’ve received the all clear from their doctor. I’m not part of that thought group. I have cancer and I am continuing to survive. Therefore I am a cancer survivor. AND I will continue to survive despite all of the chemo-induced complications I have had to experience. Those are my two cents.

Now, for what you actually clicked on – 3 life lessons from a cancer survivor.

CANCER CHANGES HOW PEOPLE RESPOND TO YOU

It is hard to predict how our family and friends will respond when you break the news that you have cancer. I waited to tell people publicly until I had all of the details and my treatment plan set up.  My inner circle knew from the beginning stages from when the tumor was discovered. Before I went public, I personally called or texted as many people who were close to me as I wanted them to hear it from me first and they could share with the people I asked them to share with.  I wanted to value them and give them time to process with me and be able to ask any question they felt they needed to ask.  After this step, I publicly shared my journey as I hoped by sharing my experience, more people would go see their doctor and do their screenings. I don’t want anyone to have to experience what I am going through. If caught early, your chances to survive will be good like mine!

After learning the news, some people will disengage with you, and perhaps they already were doing this. I have friends that over the past year, they were drifting away already.  The cancer diagnosis may have been the reason to solidify this drift.  One friend in particular was drifting and was a cause of sadness and hurt when I realized it was only me maintaining the friendship. I let it go a few months prior to my diagnosis, and even with my diagnosis, the friendship really is not there anymore.  That’s ok. The door is always open if we are able to rebuild.  If not, I will always be thankful of the memories. Cancer is already a deep thing to deal with and I don’t fault them for pulling away.

Your inner circle becomes even stronger sometimes.  They check-in with you and are patient with you when you take a couple days to respond when the chemo has made you so sick, the last thing you do is check your phone. They become a sounding board for you when all you want to do is cry or vent your frustrations. They lift you up with and share your joy and happy moments. The best part of it all is that they remain the same people prior to your diagnosis and tell you everything: good or bad.  They treat you like your non-cancer self. This is fundamentally important! I don’t like things sugarcoated.  Not everyone in my position is able to experience this, and I recognize the privilege I have here and am so immensely grateful.

Some people who you have lost touch with become your strongest supporters.  Cancer has allowed me to bridge a gap in friendships with some people and now they are stronger than ever before! It is an amazing feeling and I am so thankful for these strengthened friendships!  Sometimes it is a simple, check-in to see how you are, or a hilarious conversation about inside jokes made years in the past, or even asking how they can help.  These things do not go unnoticed and it makes me value these people even more.  I am beyond thankful for these friendships!  Cancer does a great job at showing you who really wants to be part of your world.

CANCER CHANGES WHAT YOU ARE ABLE TO DO, EVEN IF YOU ARE HEALTHY 

This was a toughie for me.  For those that know me or follow me on Instagram know how active I was both in travel and athletics.  I naively thought that I would only be feeling sick for a few days and would be able to resume normal life otherwise. How wrong I was!  My body has fought hard against the chemo causing me to spend most of my time resting.  Working out was out of the question, beside a few walks here and there as my body allowed. No more gymnastics or training for half marathons (for now!)

Flying away on adventures between treatments was not a possibility. With how low my white blood cells dropped, there as no way I could travel and expose myself to the risk of being around people who might be sick or had come into contact with someone sick. One cold and that could be it for me. Even local adventures were not possible. Being on chemo meant an even stricter diet (still vegan! yay!) so going to try new vegan places was out of the question.  Chemo took away my taste buds, which means I rather wait to try things until I can taste food properly again.  My beloved coffee now tastes like dirty water.

The loss of activity level and joy in life is real sometimes. Social circles getting smaller is a bummer.  As an ambivert, this was hard! Especially when I was neutropenic (twice so far!) and could not socialize, outside of my computer or phone.  I miss being around more people and having great conversations face to face.  The bright side is that this is only temporary!

It is okay to feel depressed and anxious about having cancer and going through treatment. A new friend of mind told me that it is okay to mourn the life you once had. She was so spot on. I find myself often sad that I cannot climb a mountain, jump on a plane and go somewhere new, or run a half marathon.  These things WILL come back, eventually. While it is hard to not be anxious about treatments or the future, I know things will work out exactly as they should.

CANCER MAKES YOU SEE YOUR LIFE IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT

Cancer has changed my perspective on life.  I was already appreciative for my life and wanted to continue living it as compassionate as possible.  Having cancer shifted things even more! I now do not hesitate to tell people how much they mean to me. I send more cards and do more acts of kindness than before, especially when unexpected.  I share a little bit more of myself with the world, when I feel like it can help others. Like this blog. (Hey you! Are you completing your cancer and other health screenings? Please do it!)

Gratitude is something I have always spent time in. But this was very private for me.  I now share more pieces of gratitude with others.  I try to compliment people more often, thank them for more things, and slow down to be more present with them.  I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they are taken for granted.  Life is too short for that.

Atonement is key. Settling past issues is important to release peace inwardly and outwardly. I am not perfect and have definitely messed up with people from time to time.  I have also had some people hurt me badly.  I find making these apologies helps others have closure, even if it means the friendship never fully recovers to what it once was. At least they know how you feel and you can only hope that in some piece of their heart, they can accept it and heal, or at least are aware of your intention. On the flip side, there are some people who aren’t ready to apologize for their actions toward you. For one particular person, I let them know I wasn’t angry with them and wholeheartedly forgave them for what they did.  It meant the world to them, and gave them peace.

I have learned wholeheartedly to not take life for granted and I share this message with others.  We never know what tomorrow brings. We aren’t promised tomorrow.  Thank you cancer for being the best (and worst!) thing to ever happen to me. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone to become an even better version of myself.

 

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