I’m not the same person I was before cancer. Not even close. Even my hairstyle has changed. These days I wear my hair short, a style I refused to try until chemo made my hair disappear. Not only did a year of cancer treatment save me, it changed the trajectory of my life. Ten years of survivorship has shown me that my experience with cancer was a life transformation. I live each day with an intention and purpose that I didn’t have before cancer. And my short hair looks fresh and feels bold.
Surviving cancer still feels like a miracle to me. I am so grateful for my life. I understand now that the hurts and the healing I lived through took me on a strange and marvelous journey. I had to dig deep for the mental toughness to get through the hard days, the suffering. When you come up against your own mortality—besides being scared shitless—you must make a stand, stake your place in the world. And you must find out why your life is still vital. What do I have to give to the world? What is my purpose? This spiritual excavation unearthed my gifts. I realized my talent and humor, the joy that I bring to my people, are gems which are unique to me. My place here in the world is not some random accident of sperm bumping into egg. Rather I am here to pursue my writing life, mentor my college students, and give my whole heart to my family, especially my sweet granddaughter Violet Mae.
I would not be living this purposeful life had I not faced and fought cancer. While I don’t credit this insidious and cruel disease for anything, my time in the trenches has proven to me that suffering is our most zealous life coach. Unfortunately, we don’t learn the big lessons in the classroom, said the teacher. Our best learning is always experiential.
Cancer took me farther outside my comfort zone than I had ever been. When my doctor said, “You have a bad cancer,” I felt like I was falling, as though the chair I sat in and the floor underneath vanished. In that dark moment, I lost the façade of control over my life, the mask we wear that denies our vulnerability, our mortality. That idea of control is an empty glass. Control is a lie that inhibits spiritual growth. Accepting our vulnerability opens us to all the joys of life. Seeing our mortality on the horizon of our awareness helps us stay focused on the precious gift of the present moment.
I learned that life is not a bunch of random stuff happening to us. Every circumstance, every crossroad, burden and blessing are intentional. I know this because part of the miracle that saved me is I had a dream, a warning, that led to the diagnosis of my cancer. In the dream a voice said, “You have breast cancer,” and then I felt all the grief and desperation that one would encounter when you hit the wall of impending mortality. That dream may sound crazy to you, but it saved my life.
Yet, even with that startling dress rehearsal, I felt unprepared for my first meeting with my new oncologist. I sat by her desk in a rose-colored chair, listening but also thinking, praying, “Not chemo, not chemo, not chemo,” until she said, “Debra, you have an aggressive cancer. We are starting your treatment immediately with eight rounds of chemo.” Then I chant-prayed, “Please-not-mastectomy-not mastectomy-not-mastectomy,” until she said, “Double-mastectomy surgery.” She piled on, “Twenty-eight radiation treatments, reconstruction, Tamoxifen and other future anti-estrogen therapies,” which I call The Big Cancer Kit. It’s the whole shebang.
So, while chemo scrubbed my insides, I had a few revelations about my outsides. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says the Psalmist. Our bodies are such miracles. I have watched my body endure its wounds and heal itself. Seeing this, understanding it—getting it—being grateful for this magical human body makes me so much less critical of my dear old self. This wondrous and painful process taught me self-love.
I saw first-hand how quickly a health crisis can take you from complaining about stuffin’ your muffin top into your jeans, to being so sick and so skinny that your fear of wasting away quivers your bones. Before this health crisis, I’d go to the gym, lash myself to the treadmill, pound my feet in a punishing way to lose weight, try to force my shape into some unrealistic body image template that’s not me. No wonder my gym visits were spotty. Anyone want to go for a horse-whippin’?
No more. In my mind Skinny = Sick. I want to keep my wondrous body healthy and strong to pursue my teaching and writing ambitions, to travel and keep up with my sweet Hubster and the Fam, and to hug my little Violet Mae.
In 2009, on the first day of cancer treatment, my oncologist pulled me aside, put her hand on my shoulder, and said rather frankly, “You’ll have a tough, shitty year, but then you’ll get your whole life back.” She never told me that I’d get a makeover, too.