My life changed forever in 2012. I turned 40 in January that year and went on a trip to Mexico with friends, visiting the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza on my actual birthday, which was an amazing experience I will never forget. Later that same evening, we met a Mayan shaman who blew me away because he "knew" things about me that were impossible to know. He then told me I was about to face the most difficult thing I had ever gone through, that I would believe myself unable to make it, but that I would find the strength to persevere, and that there would be good people to help me through. Something about him made us all believe his prophecies, and I found myself profoundly moved by what he had to say. Fast forward six months, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was a rule follower back then, so after I turned 40 I dutifully scheduled my first mammogram. A couple weeks later, I received a letter telling me the scan found something that required a second look. Another mammogram with an ultrasound revealed a spiky, black blotch, and a biopsy confirmed the blotch was cancer. It was found at an early stage, which meant it was removable, treatable, survivable. But still...cancer. And it was buried so deep I would not have detected it myself until it was too late. Following the rules definitely saved my life.
I stumbled hazily through the following months of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation and then moved on to five years of anti-hormonal medication to hopefully keep the cancer from coming back. In August 2015, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and six months after that with myalgic encephalomyelitis (known as ME; a debilitating, degenerative disease that causes dysfunction of the neurological, immune, endocrine, and energy metabolism systems). So far I have no evidence of cancer, but I still live with long-term effects caused by the treatment. The combination of the aftermath of cancer treatment and living with ME is a constant struggle both physically and emotionally.
There were many tangible things I received during my cancer treatment that were very helpful. Ice packs, hand lotion, lip balm, a new blanket, comfy pajamas, cozy socks, books, games, and word searches, a small stuffed animal, a handmade glass worry stone, origami cranes with messages of love and hope on their wings to list just some of the healing gifts sent my way. I did appreciate receiving actual cards in the mail, especially funny ones that helped me forget the crap for a few minutes. A Handful bra and tank so I could be comfortable and supported and still feel feminine was also a very much appreciated gift!
Many of the most supportive things done for me were intangible.
- Having a visitor drop by on a low day after chemo to just sit in quiet companionship
- Having a friend listen without trying to fix anything or be willing to talk about anything but cancer
- Attending a support group, whether I participated or not
- Suggestions to attend art therapy and start writing again
- Friends and family bringing food and squeezing juice for smoothies
- Finding a community of other survivors, in person and online
Many positive things have come from cancer that I would not trade for anything. I am overwhelmed by the depths of continued love and support from my family and friends. I met the most amazing, fierce, and inspiring women I am now blessed to call sisters in survival. I found deep connection and community with other cancer survivors through programs with outstanding nonprofit organizations (where I also now volunteer). I discovered a passion for helping others through their experiences with cancer and chronic illness. But most of all, my perspective shifted to one of gratitude and acceptance. Although most of my days are incredibly difficult to get through and I am no longer able to do much of what I could before cancer, I am still immeasurably grateful for each and every additional day I wake up, no matter what the day brings.
Two of the most impactful things said to me as I faced cancer survivorship both happened at an outdoor camp for cancer survivors (Project Koru) and had a similar message. I was learning to snowboard, but by the morning of day two had not yet stayed upright for longer than about 30 seconds. I fell to my knees for the millionth time and just rolled over to lie in the snow and cry and silently berate myself for being weak and a failure. Our instructor sat down next to me quietly for a few minutes, then said “This sport is very difficult for anyone, no matter how healthy or athletic they are. You are out here after cancer treatment after only one day of lessons, getting up each time and trying again, and cheering on your fellow campers. That takes a strength most people will never find.” He helped me up, and I made it all the way down the bunny slope on my next try.
Later one of our camp counselors told me she noticed I had struggled earlier. She asked if I had heard of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, which I had not. She talked to me about the fourth agreement, which is to Always Do Your Best, that your best will change from day to day or moment to moment, that it will look different when you are healthy versus sick or when trying something new. She hugged me and reminded me I had done my absolute best that day and that I should judge myself simply on that, instead of on a perceived or expected ability or outcome. At that camp, we often talked about how the mountain can break and change you. It certainly did for me that day, but in doing so, it changed my life for the better. While it is still very difficult to not judge myself based on what I used to be able to do before cancer or ME, I often think back to that day and do my best to accept the person I am in the current moment.
I had a lumpectomy on only one side, which created a divot, so I use a pad on each side in my Handful to even things out. I store lip balm, credit card, ID, and cash in the pad pockets and always have an Epipen tucked under the back strap when out in nature for potential encounters with pesky bees. After my breast cancer diagnosis, I was determined to grab every bit of life I could in big ways. I learned how to snowboard, took a wine tasting tour on horseback, hiked waterfalls, finished a mud run, paddled a dragon boat, and posed for a picture 10,000 feet up a mountain - all in my Handful. Chronic illness has now taken those big things from me. Most days, I am lucky if I can leave the house and when I do the pain and exertion and subsequent crashes are almost unbearable. Despite all that, I am still determined to grab life as much as I can - just in different ways. Sitting quietly near the ocean; or by a river, lake, or pool; or around a fire enjoying time with my family. Watching sunrises and sunsets. Chatting with friends. Bingeing an awesome sci-fi show. Writing. Savoring the feel of sun on my face and a cool breeze on my skin. Snuggling my dog. Getting lost in a good book. And whatever I am doing, I still grab all those amazing bits of life in my Handful.