This is a speech I gave at The Relay for Life Survivor Dinner in Highlands NC.
My story begins much the same as yours…a doctor’s office, a procedure, a test. Then a word. THE word. Cancer. As the syllables escaped the doctor’s mouth my world went silent, except for my racing heartbeat. It was like being in a soundproof room, or watching a silent movie where the actors mouths move and you have to figure out what they are saying. My husband and my doctor conversed as if they were miles away. The room seemed suddenly foggy and I doubled over as if I had been punched in the gut. My mind could not grasp even one thought, not even how I would tell our four children this news. It could not form a question, but my eyes must have understood because they filled with tears which spilled over and rolled down my cheeks. This was the moment that I entered what I came to call Cancerland…a foreign place with its own language, time difference, and currency. Following the doctor’s visit and diagnosis, a whirlwind ensued. The speed at which everything took place was mind boggling. Within a week, I submitted myself to knife and needle in order to preserve life. The scars I bear from treatment are both physical and emotional. They will be with me always. It was a life altering experience which split my life into two parts….the before cancer part, and the after cancer part.
My new life’s motto became Live Fully, meaning to live each day as if it is my only one. Hug my kids. Kiss my husband. Take chances. Speak truthfully. Have fun. Be in the moment…every moment. Take nothing for granted. Love well. Give up meaningless things…grudges, frustrations, stresses. Live with passion. Thank God…daily. For breath. For faith. For life. For love.
The things I do have changed in my post cancer life. I served the American Cancer Society through Relay for Life…as captain of a team, as a speaker, as a writer, and as a survivor who walks the lap every year in the company of others who also wear purple shirts. To support Susan G. Komen’s cause, I walked 60 miles, in three days, with my daughter by my side. My team raised money in hopes of inspiring others to make a difference. It did not matter to me that I had ovarian cancer instead of breast cancer, every dollar raised brings us closer to a cure. Every step for both of these organizations brings us closer as survivors.
As a result of a speech I gave for Relay, I was introduced to a spunky woman named Marcia who had started a cancer support group for women survivors in our area. Funny how one thing leads to another isn’t it? She twisted my arm until I attended a meeting. I found strength in that room I had never witnessed before…women in all stages, and of all ages, sitting together telling their stories. It was the most powerful two hours I have spent in my post cancer life. I have been back each month since then to get a bravery infusion. No more arm twisting for me, I go of my own accord now, because I have something important to offer there…hope of survival. I have been part of the core of the group to encourage others through their own journeys into Cancerland.
I started a “Pass-the-Hat Club” when I bagged up all my hats, in addition to the ones my mother-in-law had given me when she had cancer. I wrote a letter to go with them as I gave them to a friend who was just beginning her journey. She has since passed them on again…each pass of the hats lets women know they are not alone in their fearful Cancerland beginnings. I have blogged my story and put it out there in cyberspace. I have sat in waiting rooms with friends whose loved ones are on the table I once was on. I have been in the chemo room to hold hands. I have shopped for wigs with friends. I have written letters and prayed prayers for those who still battle. I have attended funerals and written eulogy’s for those who have been completely set free from the disease. In all of this my faith has been strengthened. My heart enlarged. My life enriched. And as wonderful as all these things are, they are not the main focus of my borrowed time…because life is not so much about doing, but more about being. Cancerland taught me that.
No…my central focus is in living itself. It is simple…I have a life-wish, which is the opposite of a death-wish. It is wanting every choice I make to bring life to myself or those around me. It is flying half-way around the world to spend time ministering with my daughter to prostitutes in Thailand. It is rafting down a river in Alaska with my family. It is hiking trails and swimming in waterfalls. It is taking up art again after years of blank canvass. It is sharing life together with others. It is soaking in the presence of God. It is writing my heart down on paper. It is worshiping. It is friendships. It is prayer. It is cultivating a healthy balance that bears witness to a new life. It is my life-wish.
I have heard it said we are human beings…not human doings. Surviving Cancerland taught me more about being. This place takes off the masks we wear in real life. It strips us of the things we do. When we lie in bed after treatment we cannot pretend to be something we are not. Being bald and hairless causes you to see yourself differently. I could not lift a finger to do half of what I usually did. I had to rely on others to help me and yet I found that I was still a valuable person. Even when I could not DO anything I was loved and cared for. It was a reality check and a game changer. Having a life-wish causes me to reflect on each action and allow myself to just be. So my question to survivors is not what are you doing for the cause…but how are you living your post-cancer life? I hope it is with fullness and enthusiasm because you are grateful for more time. I hope you have embraced your second chance at life with joy and are living fully the path set before you…with a life-wish.