Cancer can be quite a teacher.
While a diagnosis can be terrifying, it can also be a learning experience and an opportunity for personal growth.
Tentacles of the disease slither into every segment of life, changing not only physical attributes, but emotional, psychological and spiritual outlooks as well. Surprisingly, not all of these changes are negative, as my own cancer journey taught me.
While I’m not thrilled that I was chosen to go through the fire, I am thankful for the lessons it’s left me with.
1) Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re in great shape and your life’s work centers around helping other people improve their own health. It doesn’t care if you eat right. Run a multi-million dollar corporation? So what! Have a family to take care of? Ha! It throws the proverbial wrench into your best laid plans. It preys on oldsters and babies. BABIES, for God’s sake!
Finding out you have cancer will take your breath away. You can do everything “right” to minimize your risk only to find that you might as well have done everything “wrong.” It just doesn’t matter sometimes.
2) Timely screening and early detection are extremely important and can make the difference between a long life and an early death. Make time for your mammogram! Schedule that colonoscopy!
Sure, having your girls put in a vise and squeezed to the thickness of tissue paper kind of sucks, (kind of?) and prepping for colonoscopy is far from a picnic, but please don’t skip them! Maybe the cost of screening is stopping you. In many states there is no cost and employers are required by law to grant time off for screenings.
While some question the necessity and efficiency of mammography, I am eternally grateful for the technology that caught my cancer in an early stage.
Do those monthly self-checks, pay attention to your body and note any unusual changes.
3) It’s OK to lean on other people. They really do want to help! I was blessed with a network of loving, caring friends, family and acquaintances who supported me throughout treatments and recovery. These earthly angels cooked meals, sent beautiful cards and messages to cheer me and even came to visit during chemo infusions. They prayed. They hugged.
From them I learned how I might help others in their times of need.
4) I’m braver than I thought I’d be. Sometimes you have no choice but to hold your bald head up and carry on.
Would chemo hurt? Would I whither away to nothing? Would I be able to see the grandkids? Would I be dead by my next birthday?
I wondered if people would be “weirded out” by my appearance. Would they be afraid of me? Would they see me as less of a person, less competent as a trainer? Would they fear “catching” cancer from me?
Those fears were unfounded. Almost daily, someone offered their support. Many were survivors themselves or had loved ones who were battling this monster. They saw my fight as an inspiration.
It is now my hope to inspire fellow warriors and to help them be a little less afraid.
5) Yes, you can start to or continue to exercise. You may have to tone it down a bit, Wonder Woman, but unless your doctor deems it medically unsafe, you will probably find that maintaining, or even beginning a fitness program helps you combat fatigue, manage stress and control weight fluctuations.
It may also increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and reduce the risk of recurrence!
Find a qualified Cancer Exercise Specialist to be safe.
I couldn’t find one in my area, so I became one. Pardon the shameless plug!
6) Good nutrition is more about achieving and maintaining optimal health than about looking good naked. I can’t speak for guys, but I have never met a woman who is happy with how her body looks, whether she’s a size 2 or 22. Something is always too big, too small, too jiggly, not jiggly enough, whatever.
If I can eat to fuel my body so it’s healthy, runs efficiently and I can keep up with the young’uns, I’ll keep what jiggles.
And change the lighting in my dressing area.
7) Losing eyelashes and brows will challenge your drawing skills. Even my art background was no match for the new canvas I was working on! Whatever I applied somehow just slipped off within a few hours. Apparently cosmetics need some kind of fuzz to hang on to. Who knew?
You might develop new skin sensitivities. Wonder of wonders….my skin actually cleared up on chemo!
Programs like Look Good Feel Better can help you learn to apply makeup, style scarves and rock a wig if you choose to wear one. So draw yourself a pretty face and go take on your day!
8) Not everyone wants to share their experience but others will talk with anyone and answer any questions they are asked. I’m one of the latter ones, choosing to use it as a learning and teaching experience.
I’ve fielded questions ranging from “What does chemo feel like?” to my personal favorite, “Do you still have nipples?”
No, I wasn’t the least bit insulted.
9) Activities to calm your mind are not overrated. Immerse yourself in Yoga, art, crafts, music or whatever relaxes you and helps take your mind off the big “C.”
I returned to painting glass, which had totally burned me out in the past. It became a Zen-like pastime and I now have, literally, cases of painted wine glasses and no idea what I’m going to do with them!
10) Fear of recurrence never goes away. Ever.
Fear that it’s biding time, lurking in the background, waiting to pounce with even more viciousness.
Will it be months? Years? Decades? Sorry, not your call. The beast holds all the cards.
You could be having a perfectly lovely day, enjoying lunch with friends, sipping tea with your pinky up, when you feel a twinge somewhere. You remember. You panic.
While not every ache, pain or spot you’ll undoubtedly experience is returning cancer, they will likely set your mind racing. Be vigilant, but try not to worry. Your medical team will want to stay on top of any new symptoms, so speak up and keep them informed. They won’t think you’re being paranoid.
So what if they do?
11) People are important. Stuff is not. Love your people. Don’t sweat the stuff.
12) I am blessed. With each new day, with every star-filled night. With my sweet grandbabies’ cuddles. With an ever-so-humble but welcoming home. With work and with play. With warm summers and frosty winters. With a new crop of hair. It’s gray, but it’s hair, and I like it this way!
With each breath, with each beat of this thankful heart, I am more blessed than I probably deserve to be.
Cancer has made that abundantly clear.