Every now and then something pivotal happens in one’s life by which time is measured. A life-altering event like a birth, a death, or a diagnosis such as cancer, can change your life in an instant. For me, my marker event was Sammie before cancer, and then Sammie after cancer. As I look back on my cancer journey, all I see is change to the point where I barely recognize the person I was before cancer. There will always be a BEFORE and an AFTER.
Before Sammie was a type A control freak. As a teacher, she was used to making lists, schedules, color coating, and organizing everything! She planned things at least 2 weeks ahead and was never spontaneous. She was a hard worker, responsible, and always did the right thing. She was the first person into work and the last one to leave. She always put others first and never said the word “no”. She overextended herself and molded herself to fit into other people’s worlds to make sure THEY were comfortable. She had a solid five-year plan and nothing was going to change that…
Then, the ultimate thing beyond anyone’s control, cancer, became that life-altering event that split me in two; the before and the after. I struggled in the beginning because I felt like my life was spinning out of control and I hated it. I hated the waiting periods between scans and tests. I hated the unknown questions like, how many embryos will my husband and I get? Will I be able to have children the natural way? Will the chemotherapy that is coursing through my veins every other week shrink my tumor? Will the cancer come back? As a teacher, I was used to having all the answers, but this was one test I completely failed.
I was in denial for a really long time. I refused to accept my reality. I refused to accept that I was a cancer patient. I questioned everything. Confronting my own death changed how I viewed myself. Suddenly I was vulnerable and uncertain about my future. My time was now filled up with doctor’s appointments and managing the side effects of treatment. I was no longer a teacher, but a student trying to soak up every bit of information I could to make me feel more in control.
I had so many feelings that were difficult to navigate at first. My body had gone through so many changes in such a short amount of time, (hair loss, losing my breasts, losing my ovaries and lymphedema) that it traumatized me. I didn’t recognize who I was when I looked in the mirror. This made me sad and angry. I felt like I didn’t have a say over what happened to me and that I had no control over what was being done to my body. It was the ultimate violation.
But cancer wasn’t the only thing wearing me down. I too was wreaking havoc on myself. My days were filled with “shoulds”. “We should be on our honeymoon right now.” We should be starting a family right now”. “I should be cancer free right now”. I was looking at what everyone else had and torturing myself for not having it. Self blame and shame made a home in my head like an unwelcome house guest. There were so many changes happening physically, mentally and emotionally that I struggled to find a fulcrum on which to rest.
So I did what I do best, research. I tried to learn everything I could about cancer, and how to live a fulfilling life, not in spite of it, but because of it. I read about mindfulness and how the body and the mind should work together in achieving wellness. I read how every thought affects every cell in the body and the many variants of this idea. I thought there must be something to it if so many scientists, doctors and clinicians were on board with this theory and I was determined to ease my suffering in any way I could. The first step was to accept the unacceptable, which seemed like a daunting task. If I were to ever move on with my life, I had to accept the fact that I was a woman living with stage IV cancer.
Denial was a coping mechanism for me that clearly wasn’t working. I had to accept what was REAL, even if I didn’t like it. I had to accept the fact that some things are out of my control. Control is an illusion, yet real at the same time. Having a sense of control is like walking a tightrope. To keep balanced you are constantly adjusting your position, changing your pace and speed, and most importantly, never looking back. For me, I had to stop looking back. What was done was done. I stopped thinking about what I lost, and focused on what I have. I gave myself permission to feel all my emotions, good and bad. I gave my body and mind time and space to heal. I expressed gratitude for the people who supported me and helped me get to where I am now. I focus on the things I can control and pay no attention to the things I can’t. It is definitely a process, but the closer I am towards acceptance, the closer I am towards a newer, better, and healed version of me.
“Don’t look back and ask, Why? Look ahead and ask Why Not?”