When I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in April 2013, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Not only did I mourn my lost breast but I was terrified of dying. Survival rates for people like me were 86 percent, which might seem good on the surface. But what about the 14 out of 100 people who don’t pull through?
I became depressed and weepy, filled with anxiety. I began getting heart palpitations and had trouble sleeping. I often woke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, hoping this was a nightmare. But the pain on the left side of my chest told me it wasn’t.
But then something changed my way of thinking. I reached a turning point and its name was Danielle.
At first, I hid my diagnosis from the Facebook community, as though my cancer were shameful, embarrassing and somehow my fault. Then I realized how foolish this was and “outed” myself on social media. The outpouring of support was overwhelming. Friends from across the street and across the world in Australia, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands reached out to me and upheld me.
After my slightly cryptic post which said something about “especially in the coming months,” Danielle sent a Facebook message, asking what I meant. I told her. This began an exchange of emotionally-fortifying notes which transformed me from feeling like a victim to a kick-ass warrior. Like Danielle.
You see, less than two years earlier, in June 2011, Danielle suffered a catastrophic fall while rock-climbing in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison. She plummeted nearly 300 feet and broke her ankles, femur, pelvis and her back in two places.
After six surgeries and three and a half months in Denver Health Medical Center, she was paralyzed from the chest down. This might have devastated other people, but not Danielle.
My family happened to be traveling in Colorado a few weeks after Danielle’s accident and we visited her. The daughter of our friend, Jim, we’d known Danielle since she was a little girl. We weren’t prepared for what we saw in the Denver hospital.
There Danielle was, beaming her amazing 1,000-watt smile. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she was grateful to be alive, finding joy in the new gelato flavors that came to Denver Health every Wednesday, encouraging our 11-year-old son to play with her electric hospital bed.
I was floored.
Fast-forward 18 months and Danielle was mono-skiing with the doctors and therapists who saved her life.
A month later came my cancer diagnosis. Every time I felt sad or worried. I tried to think of Danielle. Her Facebook page was brimming with inspirational quotes like Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
When I told Danielle that this quote kept me going, she countered with, “I’m sure you will go through a period of grief, but I’m glad they found your cancer. You are going to be okay. Now you are in the club of super-strong people who conquered something like this! Sometimes I feel like this accident is the best thing that happened to me.”
Imagine a young woman, not even 30, finding a positive in being paralyzed.
And here I was, being all woe is me because I lost a breast.
When Danielle started a blog, I followed it feverishly. “My surgeon said this had been a record-breaking fall and I had survived the unsurviveable,” she wrote. In her June 12, 2014 entry, she celebrated “three years of extended life.” What a great way to perceive it.
Right then and there, in the throes of chemotherapy, I decided to stop being consumed by fears of recurrence and to get on with the business of living. Like Danielle did.
Since her near-fatal accident, Danielle has learned hand-cycling, adaptive skiing (courtesy of a scholarship from Oregon Adaptive Sports), and tried her hand at horseback riding and kayaking. Plus she’s learned to drive a car with hand controls.
Instead of being despondent when she was turned down by physical therapy schools across the U.S. (they felt the demands of PT would prove to be too much even for someone with her impressive upper-body strength), she edited her dreams when the University of Puget Sound said she’d be a perfect candidate for their occupational therapy program.
This May, with her first year of OT studies behind her, Danielle will go on a four-day camp out ride in Moab to test-drive her customized ReActive Adaptations handcycle courtesy of her winning GoHawkeye’s Great Adaptive Outdoor Adventure Contest.
Absolutely nothing stops Danielle, and in the wake of my cancer odyssey, I vowed not to let anything stop me either. I’m currently cancer-free and hope to stay that way.
When I told Danielle that she would be the crux of this piece, she was humbled. “It really means a lot to me that I helped you through that time,” she said. “We are all interconnected and we can lift each other up!”
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