Five Things Breast Cancer Taught Me About Living

Snowy chemo in 2011
Snowy chemo in 2011

It is difficult to describe the bittersweet feelings that come with October 11th. Five years ago today, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the trajectory of my life changed completely. No longer did I feel invincible or operate under the assumption that I had limitless time with my family. No longer did I trust that an ache or a pain was innocent and benign. October 11th is the day that I was forced to face my own mortality.

In honor of my 5-year “cancerversary,” I want to share five things that breast cancer has taught me about life. There have been some silver linings surrounding the dark clouds of fear, sadness and loss that came with my diagnosis.

  1. There is an amazing depth of kindness in this world. The love and support I experienced from my family, friends, co-workers and even strangers, was overwhelming. On my darkest days, the days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, the days when I was so worn down from chemo that I couldn’t walk across the room without feeling winded, the days when I was just so mad that cancer was happening to me, those were the days when that kindness literally lifted me up and carried me. A text message from an old co-worker across the country that made me smile. A macaroni and cheese casserole straight from the oven of a friend. A smile from the guy stocking shelves at the grocery store instead of an uncomfortable glance away. A hug from my mom. While I can never pay back the kindness shown to me, I do try to pay it forward.
  2. Laughter is definitely the best medicine. Whether it was the time that the nickname “Baldy Mommy” backfired and led to my three year old daughter pointing at “hair challenged” gentleman and yelling “Hey Baldy” or watching “Arrested Development” and LOL’ing a bit aggressively during chemo sessions, finding the humor in crappy circumstances helped me get through some challenging days. I couldn’t change the fact that I was going to have a bilateral mastectomy, but I could make my husband laugh as I was wheeled into surgery by expressing my relief that he wasn’t “a boob man.” Wearing my “yes they’re fake, the real ones tried to kill me” shirt got some great laughs in the chemo infusion room from other patients. Finding tiny kernels of joy amidst the pain was like fuel. I always prescribe a high dose of laughter to help with the side effects of cancer and other crappy adventures that life takes us on.
  3. Live in the moment. I’m not going to lie to you, before cancer that was a tough one for me. I had plans, people! Goals! A path to follow! Until cancer had other ideas and tried to derail my entire world. All of a sudden, the quiet, simple moments became much more meaningful to me. The fear of not having future moments forced me to slow down and actually enjoy the current one. This moment right here, right now… guess what? It’s guaranteed. Tomorrow? Not so much. I find great pleasure in walking my kids to school in the morning, in the crisp, clear blue sky of an October day, in the beautiful sunset that drops its golden brilliance on the horizon as I drive home from a meeting. Life is now.
  4. While I can’t control my “rogue” cells, I can control my story, and what I do with that story. My cells malfunctioned. Cancer grew. I can’t change that. But what I can do is use my personal cancer experience as a catalyst for change. I can bring new meaning and control to my own experience by shaping how that experience will help others. Whether that’s giving newly diagnosed women tips on navigating the healthcare system, or funding breast cancer research so my daughters don’t walk in my shoes, I can make a difference. We can all use our experiences as a powerful force for good. For me, that has brought back a lot of the control that I lost during my cancer diagnosis, which has been incredibly healing.
  5. This. One of my favorite passages from Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s poignant and beautiful memoir When Breath Becomes Air articulates the biggest lesson that I learned from my breast cancer diagnosis: “I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go live every last drop out of today. Because it is October 11th, and I am still here.

Sharing my story at the Consano event in Portland, October 2016
Sharing my story at the Consano event in Portland, October 2016
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