One year ago I heard the words “you have cancer” – for the third time. Three separate cancers. Stunned. Disbelief. Anger. Disappointment. All immediate emotions. After that diagnosis, I didn’t expect this to be a year of joy. Lots of joy.
Clearing a third cancer was…surreal to say the least. Difficult to describe, even for this writer. It was so unexpected, truly. An almost chronic ache in my knee turned out to be osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. An odd-looking mole came back melanoma. But when I walked into my annual 3D mammogram screening last December, I was feeling great. Probably the best physically, emotionally, mentally that I had in ages. And that probably helped save me in all those ways as I went through surgery, chemo and radiation to clear the cancer.
While I am fortunate that I physically recovered well from treatment, mentally and emotionally I am still tired. Vulnerable. Raw. No matter how much you want to put it behind, it is your new reality.
And yet…..in the midst of a heartbreaking diagnosis, challenging treatment and focused efforts of life after cancer, I discovered something appearing unexpectedly each day. I discovered JOY. In feeling the sunshine. Hearing birds chirping. Hugs. A stranger’s compliment. A heart full of love. My bikes. A phone call. Strength in lifting weights. Taking a breath.
I am sometimes brought to my knees with the overwhelming gratitude I feel at being alive after three cancers. I want to absorb all the beauty around me. Hug my family and friends. Experience cultures and explore lands. Be wrapped in love, embrace a man who chooses me in a relationship that brings support, laughter, adventure and memories. I don’t want to waste time wondering about this or that, hesitate to share my feelings with someone or miss opportunities because I was too scared to take a chance. I want to LIVE.
What are the lessons that I learned in this unexpected year of joy?
Focus on the simple things.
Goodness, there is a lot of simple beauty in the world around us! We take for granted a lot in our society. But going through cancer and treatment certainly makes one aware of things, like brushing your hair. I get such joy from sunshine, fresh air, sleeping through the night, my body’s strength in lifting weights or biking. Focusing on simple things helps keep things in perspective. What simple things bring you joy?
Laughter is such good medicine.
There’s a lot of funny in the world. A good thing to have among the all the crap we face. And who doesn’t like to laugh? I’m blessed to be surrounded by silly, fun people who constantly make me laugh. We’ve shared many light, funny moments in the midst of treatment and challenging times. It doesn’t minimize the seriousness or sadness of something like cancer or my dad’s death, but sometimes you have to laugh to push through the darkness. It’s what helps find the sunshine in the heartbreak.
I opened my heart to sharing love, embracing the unexpected, and while it hasn’t yet gone my way, I am so grateful for the love that fills my heart. I opened doors to future professional paths and realized some new ideas that I’m excited to pursue. Four weeks post-treatment, I set off to bike across Iowa to raise funds for LIVESTRONG’s cancer support programs – I was so nervous the day before we rode out, wondering how I possibly could make it through the week as exhausted as I was. Guess what? It was an exhilarating week, one of the best weeks I’ve experienced in a long time! I loved the biking, time with special people, awareness we raised to help others facing cancer. I’m SO grateful I took this chance and experienced pure joy.
Strength resides in all of us.
Facing this third cancer has been one of the most difficult situations I’ve overcome; rivaled only by my bone cancer treatment and my dad’s death. And yet, I never doubted I could do it. Yes, it brought me to floor sobbing a few times. I screamed into a pillow more than a few times. I forced myself out of bed to face another chemo treatment. And every one of those moments reminded me that I was stronger than the fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, impatience, anger.
Kindness surrounds us.
Oh my, is there kindness all around us! In the smiles and help from my care team at the cancer center, encouraging messages from strangers on social media, meals from friends, cards and letters flooding my mailbox, cuddles with my nieces and nephew, strangers complimenting my hair without realizing the anxiety I felt despite cold capping to save my hair, my mom and sisters’ care, constant ‘check ins’ from others to remind me I’m not alone, offers to bike and be active with me, and so much more. While I try to always be kind to others, these acts of kindness toward me reinforced how special one feels as the recipient of seemingly simple gestures. I definitely will be adding extra kindness acts to my days.
Life after cancer
I’m fortunate that unexpected joy appeared in the face of a devastating diagnosis. Do I wish breast cancer hadn’t appeared in my life? Of course. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. But somehow little bursts of joy filtered throughout this year and I’m beyond grateful for that. It’s taught me to focus on finding the joy, even when I feel like there isn’t any.