When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I never asked, “Why?” Asking why would have been a logical response, especially considering the fact that I was a 5K runner, ate healthy, and didn’t have first-degree relatives with breast cancer in my family. However, rather than ask “Why?” I wondered, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” As it turns out, one of the shining moments of my experience with breast cancer was learning some valuable life lessons.
Lesson #1: Honor the feelings and let them out. Prior to my experience with breast cancer, I was a grin-and-bear it kind of girl who was reluctant to share any feeling other than joy. However, once ‘Roid Rage (the intense feelings of anger brought on by pre-chemotherapy steroids) and my Chemo-Sabe cocktails that entered my life, I had no choice but to let it all out. And you know what? Expressing feelings, all feelings, happen to feel good, really good. Though I no longer have either ‘Roid Rage or Chemo-Sabe (thank goodness!), I continue to openly express my feelings. And it still feels good!
Lesson #2: Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. As John Donne so memorably wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” It took a cancer diagnosis for me to really get the meaning of this. I now know that seeking support is both the loving and strong thing to do. By getting the right help, whether in making decisions or making meals, I came to realize that letting go of control and delegating is a way to honor yourself and to honor those around you.
Lesson #3: It’s just hair. One of the things that I was most anxious about prior to starting chemotherapy was losing my hair. There are studies that show that for many women, losing their hair is worse than losing a breast. I feared chemotherapy more than I feared cancer. Although I elected not to shave my head, as soon as my hair started falling out, I had a Chemo Coiffure that I called, “On the Good Ship Lolly-Bob.” My hair was cut to my chin. What I learned was that anticipation was far worse than reality. While I didn’t exactly think bald was beautiful, I realized bald wasn’t bad.
Lesson #4: No Should-ing. I used to be a big “should-er.” I was always saying “I should go to this. I should do that.” True, there are certain things in the world that are not options, e.g. taxes, death, eating, breathing, and of course, reading to your children. I also believe that being kind is a moral imperative that is nonnegotiable. Aside from these things, “should-ing” does not make for a happy life. I now make decisions based on whether or not it will make my heart sing.
Lesson #5: Breast cancer isn’t a fight (at least for me). Were the treatments awful? Yes. Was it a struggle? Yes, of course. Omnipresent in our culture are cancer “fighting” messages. Frankly, the thought of “fighting” makes my stomach turn and has a tremendously pejorative connotation. Why add insult (fighting) to injury (cancer)? So, if I didn’t “fight,” what did I do, you ask? I harnessed energy. I found shining moments. I laughed (at myself, mostly). I rested. I allowed the treatments to work. I tried a whole lot of things that I’d never done before (writing). I didn’t fight. I looked for inner peace and understanding and saw my life as a blessing full of shining moments.