What Cancer Taught Me About Living

When I was told 10 years ago that I was going to have to lose my right breast to cancer, my first thought was, "At least it's not my arm."
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Ten years ago, when I was told that I was going to have to lose my right breast to cancer, my first thought was, "At least it's not my arm." Losing a body part is -- to say the least -- emotionally devastating, but to know that your only other option is death, well, that scenario is enough of a battlefield to make a soldier out of anyone.

The word Amazon literally and historically means "without breast," and this moniker was ascribed to the ancient female archers who -- in their effort to become the most efficient warriors -- sacrificed their breast so that they could hold the bow closer to their chests. The goal of their dedication was the same as mine: Strength in battle and victory over the enemy.

I needed a positive and reinforcing visualization, and so I chose to think of myself as an Amazon warrior; because things were about to go down hard, and if I had to lose a breast, I was certainly going to hold the metaphorical bow and arrow to my chest to fend off the thousand and one enemies that were about to come my way.

First came the mastectomy. Do-able. Oddly enough, the loss of the breast itself was the least of my problems. Next, the infusions. Adriamycin-cytoxin for four months straight, then another four months of taxotere. Just seeing the names of these chemotherapy drugs today could send me into hallucinatory flashbacks. They say, "War is hell." I say, "Chemo is hell." Why elaborate? Hell is hell.

Then, radiation, reconstruction, a failed reconstruction, lymphedema, adjuvant drug therapy, and of course, every woman's dreaded nightmare: More than a year's worth of baldness. The ol' spit shine, or what I like to call the ninety-thousand dollar haircut.

My then three-year-old baby girl used to love to draw smiley faces on my head with lipstick. Between her smile and the ones scribbled on my pate, I knew that if there was anything in this world that was going to keep me battling, it was this kid.

Fighting for my life came with unexpected enemies: self-doubt, fear of the unknown, fear of becoming unlovable and the threat of poverty. Divorce left me feeling isolated. Loneliness drove me into compulsive creativity.

Loosely based on my experience as a cancer survivor, I wrote a novel, "Angels and Echoes," which ironically, was published by My protagonist, Olivia Lang, was written for all the Amazon warriors out there, whose stories rarely, if ever, get told.

Creativity caused me to blossom, and 10 years later, I continue to do so. Whatever doubt I had about my physical appearance evaporated in a puff of self-esteem and self-respect. I wear my war wounds with pride. Cancer doesn't define who I am, but it certainly did bless me with resilience. Ironically, the disease unearthed the most beautiful and enduringly positive traits I had within me. Cancer taught me that life is precious and that there is wonder in every breath I take.

There were many stories, both good and bad, that came along with my cancer; but I want to close with this particularly poignant and absolutely true story:

About four months into my treatment, someone convinced me to participate in one of those Pink Ribbon walkathons where thousands of total strangers sponsored those who were battling breast cancer in great shows of loving support. I was so tired. My head was itching beneath the ridiculous wig I had on, and I was feeling way too sick to continue walking. I parked myself on a bench to rest.

A woman came over, sat next to me and handed me a bottle of water. A compassionate soul she was, and I thanked her. We spoke for a minute or two, and I learned that she was there to walk on behalf of a survivor whose name she was given at random. I asked her who her survivor was, and after she reached into her bag to retrieve the piece of paper that held the name of who she was sponsoring, she said, "Dori Hartley."

Tears welled up in my eyes. "That's me," I said. I had no idea that anyone even knew I existed, let alone that my name was brought to the attention of someone who'd want to walk on my behalf.

I learned then what I want to share now, with anyone who has fought or is still fighting cancer: You are not alone. Though you may feel like you're losing your mind, or that the world has deserted you -- you are not alone, and you are loved.

And you are special, and you are beautiful.

You are an Amazon, and don't you forget it.