Honestly, this is a sentence that I never thought that I would read, let alone write. Who is glad that they had cancer?
Me. Me. I’m glad that I had cancer. And more to the point, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me.
But let me backtrack a bit. I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in January 2015. Breast cancer is its own joy, but inflammatory breast cancer is a special beast as it is a bit more rare and aggressive. I got the full monty of fun: six rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and then 33 hits of radiation. I lost all of my hair (but gained an impressive scarf collection) and depended on my husband, family, and friends in ways that made me feel humble, helpless, and grateful, sometimes all at the same time.
So if cancer gave me so much, little of which few people actually want, why was cancer such a good thing for me?
- I got my shit together. Fourteen months after my initial diagnosis, the very large, very blue, very corporate company that I worked for added me to the layoff list. Once I overcame the initial terror of wondering what we would do for money and for health insurance, I made the unnerving yet easy decision to change careers. I did some additional training, some additional certifications, went to networking events and meet-up groups, and held fast to the faith that the universe would find someone else to pick on after a while. And it did. I started a new job, doing work that is valued and necessary and useful, and I’m finding ways to make that work my own.
- I got serious about who and what I loved. Girls’ trip to Nashville? I’m in! Finally going to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after 20+ years of talking about it with one of my friends from the Peace Corps years? Yep, I’m there, and let’s throw in a side trip to Crater Lake to boot. Ten days in Scotland with my mum and my friend/mum’s other daughter? Sign me up! Two weeks with my husband and parents in Italy? I’m your girl! Regular date nights to a favorite restaurant with my husband? Yes, please! Chinese food with my brother while he x-rays our dogs? How many pot stickers do you want? Having the awkward conversation now to make the future that much better? Let’s rip that band-aid off! Another ginger cocktail while we catch up on our lives? I’ll have another! I make spending time with those that I love a priority. Let me give you a hug or listen to your story today because who knows what tomorrow will hold.
- I’ll take the risk. I wasn’t fearful or risk-averse before sliding onto the surgery table, but I am even less so now. Am I scared of standing up and speaking in front of large groups of people? You bet, but I’ll keep doing it until I am no longer afraid. Is it hard to do things that are new, where I am awkward and ungainly as I acquire new skills? Yep, but I’ll ask for help and keep working until I am at the point that I can share my knowledge with someone else. If it doesn’t scare me just a little, then I need to set my sights higher.
- I am worth the effort. Whether it is fixing our house to make it beautiful or taking the spin class or finding a Pilates class to regain flexibility and strength or taking the dogs for the early morning walk or drinking the shockingly green smoothie, I am worth the effort of good care, and I am worth my very best. So are you. So are we all.
I know that one reason for oncological gratitude is because my story has a happy ending. I got to live–and live well. I doubt that I’d be so gracious or forgiving if I’d wound up in ongoing chemotherapy, with surgical side effects, or an urn. This past Thanksgiving, before celebrating around our table with friends, I took our dogs for a big hike (tired dogs are good dogs, especially dogs that are hoping for a handout from the holiday table) and then got myself on a bike in a spin class with one of my favorite instructors. Most of the people in there were excited, happily chattering about the holiday and mashed potatoes and pie and family that was visiting. But not me. I was over in a darker corner of the darkened room, tearing up, crying because I was just so happy to be there.
It has been a long road back, and while it is not the road that I would have necessarily chosen, I do not regret this journey for one moment. It is mine, and I’m going to take these very hard, very painful lessons, learn from them, and run forward into the sun. The blessing is on the other side of comfort.