In 2001, just months after 9/11, I was diagnosed with DCIS (early breast cancer). Five years later to the day, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer. While my breast cancer was treated and I have passed the 10-year survival mark, multiple myeloma is incurable, which will haunt me for the rest of my life. Luckily, my type of multiple myeloma is called, "smoldering," which means it might never become full-blown and that I might never need treatment. However, I will always need biannual monitoring in the form of blood tests and body scans. Those who know me know that I refuse to be defined by my history of cancer, but rather, my diagnoses simply served as landmarks, providing me with more reason to live. A cancer diagnoses offers the opportunity to examine our lives, seek joy, and offer a deeper perspective on what is truly important.
When first diagnosed with breast cancer, I reached out for the infamous Dr. Love's Breast Book that offered helpful explanations and perspectives. This made me feel in control of my situation, something which is important when you feel as if you have fallen off a cliff. Everything was going so well in my life. My three kids, ages 11, 15, and 17 were thriving. There was no known family history of cancer, and the shocking news set me on a new and unknown path of discovery and growth, tapping into strengths formerly unknown to me.
A cancer diagnosis not only offers a perspective on our lives, but also offers the opportunity to express and feel gratitude. First, I am thankful my diagnoses were made early enough (first at 47 and then at 52), so that I can move on and celebrate all the good in my life -- my family, friends, and accomplishments. This year, I am happy to have celebrated and survived my 60th birthday, knowing that my grandmother took her life when she was only 61. I feel strong and believe the cancer experience has inspired and motivated me to be thankful for all the good things in my life, including being thankful that my father survived five years in the infamous Dachau concentration camp during his teens, from the ages of 15-20. I am thankful that he immigrated to New York in 1947; met my mother at a dance club, married and started a new life for himself, consequently bringing me into the world. I am thankful for their love and the love of my grandparents as well.
In general, my life as a nurse, mother, wife, teacher, and psychologist has given me a multi-dimensional perspective. Cancer can be considered our collective consciousness because each one of us knows someone who either has cancer, had cancer, or died of cancer. The fear of cancer and thoughts of cancer often seep through our minds, cells, and consciousness. Having cancer offers challenges on how we view life; it questions our views and beliefs, including our pasts, present, and futures. Like most challenges or traumas, having cancer offers lessons for growth, transformation and empowerment, especially since it's a reminder of life's fragility and temporality. Having a positive attitude about cancer allow you to control the disease rather than allow it to control you. In other words, cancer can be empowering.
As we age, we begin to think about and face our own mortality. It has been said that once you had a cancer diagnosis you can become cancer-free but never free from cancer because the experience forever changes your perspective. Having a history of cancer will always be a part of who I am, even if I don't talk about it or overtly connect with my disease.
My personal journey has forced me to examine my life at a deeper level, with more insight and reflection. My experiences with cancer have taught me the importance of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, love, appreciation and gratitude, while at the same time; it has awakened in me the possibilities and inevitabilities that life has to offer.