before and after photo of female cancer survivor

When I tell people I have cancer, I normally get something like “but you don’t look sick” or “you can’t have cancer, you still have all your hair.” I normally just dismiss them and say thank you, but what I really want to say is…

What do you mean I don’t look sick? Can’t you tell my insides are sick not my outsides? You mean you can’t tell by looking at me that my colon is missing? Or that my lungs have tumors in them? You couldn’t just see that by looking at me?

Would it be better if I faked losing a limb to fit your idea of being sick? Thank you, I try hard not to look sick. Oh, and not all cancer patients lose their hair. I have been working on growing my hair back for the past two years, thank you for noticing.

I was at an event where they had a comfy chair labeled, “Reserved, this chair is for those with chronic medical needs.” I believe having cancer counts as a chronic medical need. There were two chairs across the aisle from each other. A lady with a cane came and sat in one. But I didn’t sit down — I took the hard chair instead because people there didn’t know I was sick. I didn’t look sick and I know I would be judged if I sat there.

But why is that? Is it because I don’t fit society’s stereotype of someone with cancer?

I am not super sickly, skinny and bald, and I don’t walk around with an oxygen tube hanging from my nose. I don’t look like I am going to die. But I have been there at one point. I looked sick. I was super skinny and you could see all my bones. You could see the effects of the chemo on me.

I have been that stereotypical cancer girl, but that was two years ago. I still have cancer, even though I don’t look like that sick girl anymore.

So, where does society get its viewpoint of cancer patients? The media is a big one. Movies like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” all paint cancer patients as sickly, frail and bald people. When “Chasing Life” came out, the biggest complaint was she didn’t lose her hair or look sick fast enough. It took her a good 10 episodes to go bald and look sick.

But why is this idea forced upon us? Is it not believable that a person who functions fine out the outside, who looks fine, who functions like every other normal person, could be dying of cancer? Is that too hard to comprehend?

Each cancer is different, and everyone reacts differently to the medications. I have friends who were on the same drugs as I am, and I lost a lot of weight while they gained a lot of weight. They are also breaking the stereotypes.

My doctors told me with my chemo I should be able to keep my hair. Unfortunately, I lost it, but they said most people on that type of chemo keep their hair. Once again, breaking the cancer stereotypes.

Some people have cancer that is just a lump or a bump, and they get it removed and don’t lose their hair or lose a third of their weight. They are also defying the cancer stereotypes.

Everyone’s cancer is different, and we don’t fit into one mold.

Sometimes I wish I had a visible illness so I could avoid the judgmental stares, the mean comments and the stereotypical remarks — but not everyone has a visible illness. Just because I look fine on the outside, have you check out my insides lately, the part you can’t see? I may look fine on the outside, but my insides don’t match.

Just because my illness isn’t visible doesn’t mean it’s not there.

This post was previously published on Medium.

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I shouldn’t know what it feels like to watch my friends die.

I shouldn’t have to choose whether I want to have children or not.

I shouldn’t have to choose what drugs I want to take based on which side-effects I will have to live with.

I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for taking a sick day.

I shouldn’t have to think “I feel ugly without hair.”

I shouldn’t have to feel like a shitty person for living while my friends are dying.

I shouldn’t have to feel like a shitty person because I am out of treatment now and my friends are not.

I shouldn’t know how to pronounce “cyclophosphamide,” “irinotecan,” “oxaliplatin” or all the other drugs I’ve taken.

I shouldn’t have to be strong for my family and friends.

I shouldn’t have to know more about cancer than my oncologist or be asking my doctor about different treatments.

I shouldn’t have to know what it’s like to be missing random body parts.

I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for getting to do fun things.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for using the excuse, “I can’t because I have cancer.”

I shouldn’t feel guilty for having special privileges because I have cancer.

I shouldn’t feel bad for not wanting to explain everything to everyone.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for having that luxury.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for being sick all the time.

I shouldn’t feel bad for seeing a therapist.

I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m drowning just to survive.

I shouldn’t have to fight with my insurance company to get my medication and treatments covered.

I shouldn’t have to go bankrupt because of my cancer.

I shouldn’t have to choose medications and treatments based on the price tag.

I shouldn’t have to feel like a failure because I haven’t graduated college or figured out my life yet.

I shouldn’t feel jealous watching all my friends have fun without me.

I shouldn’t be mad watching their lives go on while mine is at a standstill.

I shouldn’t feel so out of touch with society.

I shouldn’t feel jealous of the children who have cancer and get the cool cancer perks.

I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to work twice as hard to prove myself because I have cancer.

I shouldn’t have to feel alone.

I shouldn’t have to feel like nobody understands.

I shouldn’t have to feel

Helpless

Weak

Alone

Pathetic

Useless.

I shouldn’t feel any of these things

But I do.

This post was previously published on Medium.

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Thinkstock photo by nizha2


Even though I’ve been a certified Canadian fitness professional since 1992 — and have practiced and taught many forms of exercise — I’ve only been running seriously since 2010. In 2011, I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where running outside year-round is possible. Snowfall is rare and doesn’t last long if it falls, and temperatures rarely get frigid enough to put a stop to a run. While living there for three years, I was in the best shape of my life and regularly competed in races where I was usually in the top three finishers for my age group. I also started running almost every day with my Irish Setter, Seamus O’Malley. He was, and still is, a great running companion, often urging me up hills when I might have passed on them.

In March of 2014 we moved back to Canada. It was a very difficult time for me. My mum had kidney problems along with heart issues. The doctors informed her there was nothing more that could be done and told her to settle her affairs. My mum was dying and my stepdad was having trouble coping. However, if I thought I was overwhelmed at that point, I was in for a magnificent slap in the face.

My mother died at 1:20 a.m. on Wednesday April 22, 2015. This was quickly followed by my stepdad’s stroke two weeks later, with a subsequent extended hospital stay and weeks of rehab, both of which resulted in months of worrying about him being on his own.

Just as things were starting to get back to normal, I was diagnosed with colon cancer on September 17. Boom! My world exploded in the six seconds it took my GI to tell me what she had found. There were a few things that saved me from utter depression and wanting to completely shut down. One of those things was Seamus O’Malley, my Four Leaf Rover. Thank God for him. On the days I felt the walls closing in and all I wanted to do was stay in my house and cry, there was Seamus reminding me it wasn’t always about me.

beautiful brown dog laying down in a living room.

I remember one particularly low point. It was about 10 a.m. and I was lying in bed after telling my husband before he left for work, at 7 a.m., that I’d get up right after he left. That turned out to be a rather large whopping falsehood. It was just easier to lie to him than argue. Anyway, all of a sudden the bed shook as Seamus jumped up and headed straight for my head, where he started to lick my face relentlessly. At first I was mad, which I’m ashamed to say, and I pushed him away. He is not allowed on the bed, and how dare he interrupt my melancholy? However, one look at his face as I yelled at him made me shut up. He was crestfallen. I could see clearly he was crushed. I felt horrible, which was quite a feat, considering I was already feeling at least 50 shades of horribleness.

I had a brief moment of clarity. I say brief because it would be disingenuous of me to say this moment completely cured me of any further caterwauling. For that particular moment in time, though, it did. I got myself up, washed my face, and pulled on some running gear. I watched Seamus dance around, clearly and completely excited about the prospect of being with me on a run, and I realized I was his complete world and I did not have the right to ignore him or to check out completely. On that morning, my Irish Laddie saved me from myself. We had a glorious run, with plenty of poop stops, as I recall. I felt normal and grateful to my four-legged boy. On that day, I was able to cope.

I’d love to tell you that all the following days leading up to my cancer surgery (and the eventual fabulous news that there was no lymph node involvement and no distant disease present) were filled with my fighting spirit, but that would be an invention. What I can say, however, is that every single time I allowed my Seamus to remind me there was a world out there he wanted to go and sniff, I felt better for it. I clung to those moments when they happened. I felt strong, purposeful and powerful and able to conquer this cancer.

For those of you without a dog, I imagine this might be hard for you to understand. For those of you who have chosen to have a dog in your life, I can imagine you nodding your heads in complete understanding. There are so many things I have learned from my dogs. When my first Irish was in agonizing pain from bone cancer, I never once observed her to snarl or snap at anyone. I can’t say the same for myself.

There were many people who were there for me in my hour of need. I do not want to minimize their impact. I will never be able to properly thank those friends and family who embraced me with love and understanding, but it was only Seamus O’Malley that never had that pitying look in his eye when he gazed at me. It was only Seamus O’Malley that basically told me with his manner, “Well, Mum — f*ck cancer — I just want to run with you and feel the wind and the sunshine on my face. The only way I can do that is with you, Mumma. I love you Mum, so come run with me and see and feel the world in all its glory. Come and feel better with me, run with me and feel capable”. So I did. Seamus O’Malley — my Four Leaf Rover.

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When I was told I had colon cancer, my brain scurried to catch up with my emotions, and time seemed to slow down. After speaking with hundreds of men and women given this same news, I know I am not alone experiencing this response — stunned disbelief and feeling like you are in a dream. It really doesn’t feel authentic, yet it is. What I have found interesting is how we all differ, sometimes radically, on how we decide to proceed from that point.

How do we, as individuals, decide on exactly when we tell our friends and family about our cancer, and how do we decide on how much information we give them? Do we share this with our friends and family immediately, or do we take days or weeks to process and get more clinical information? On this issue I have heard many different responses, all grounded in solid reasoning for that person. This speaks, I believe, to the diverse nature of the human spirit.

My husband was with me when my GI gave me the news she found a small polyp in my ascending colon and removed it, but had observed a near circumferential hard mass in my rectum, 15 centimeters from my anus. She told me she had taken multiple samples to be biopsied. I remember looking at my husband and then back at the doctor and asking what she meant by “mass,” even though I damned well knew what she meant. I couldn’t say the word, though. I left that to her, and she obliged me by saying it: cancer. I reached for my husband’s hand, and then I argued with her, telling her she must have the wrong ass and how on earth could she know it was cancer when she had not even sent off the biopsies yet? I had come into her offices for a routine colonoscopy and fully expected to be patted on the head and told to be on my way and not to come back for another five years. This was not my plan for the day.

So… there was my first reaction in all its visceral glory, which I have since found out is somewhat the same reaction everyone I have ever talked to has had about their initial diagnosis. Disbelief. Once my husband and I received further instructions as to how we would proceed from this point from the GI, we left the building in silence until we got to the car, where I completely broke down and sobbed every last tear that could possibly be in my body. I told my husband I did not want to tell anyone about this other than my two sisters. I was adamant. No other family, not one single friend. No one. My husband, being the wise man he is, did not argue with me.

I told my two sisters, and they immediately made plans to come down so they could attend my next appointment. That was good enough for me. My circle of “knowers” was nice and small. Exactly what I wanted… or so I thought.

In my experience, cancer, as ugly as it is, can be a teacher. In the beginning, I wasn’t having cancer teach me a bloody thing. I was going to handle this the way I have always handled things. By myself. The thought of even sharing this with my husband’s children, the rest of his family, my family (other than my two sisters) and our circle of friends was an overwhelming idea. No. Way. I could barely function, and adding the questions and concerns of other people, I felt, would not serve me. So I stayed isolated. I stayed within myself. I allowed myself to vent to my husband and two sisters, but that was it… until the day I was given no choice but to share my news with a wise and dear chum. It was through her that I completely changed my mind concerning my decision about sharing.

Prior to receiving my cancer diagnosis, my husband and I had booked a trip to Puerto Rico with close friends. Once I found out I had colon cancer, I no longer wanted to go, but since no amount of begging, pleading or crying could get me an earlier date for a CT scan, I had a choice. I could stay at home and be depressed, scared and angry and then go and get my CT scan, or I could still be those same three things but in a much warmer climate with alcohol being delivered to me poolside while working on my vitamin D. Then when I returned home, I could get my scheduled CT scan. Obviously I chose the latter.

When it became clear I was going to go to Puerto Rico, I had to tell our close friends, Phil and Carol, about my colon cancer as my depression combined with spontaneous crying jags on said vacation would have aroused suspicion. While there, Carol told me something that stuck with me. She said I had a whole army of friends out there who would want to send prayers, love and support that could only serve to help me, not hurt me. Keeping it to myself, and then perhaps telling people after it was all over, would only serve to mask the true me to my friends. The more I thought about Carol’s words, the more I realized she was right. (Carol is always right.) Who am I kidding? I am not brave, I was not keeping it together most days, and it dawned on me that I could not do this alone. As Carol pointed out wisely, I do have an amazing group of friends who would want to help me. I even had one friend, after Carol told her my story, who arranged to have a candle lit and a prayer said for me at the University of Notre Dame church.

The act of changing my mind about who to share my cancer diagnosis with helped me tremendously. I’m so grateful for a wise friend who let me see that clearly. Changing my mind also led me to start a blog that is fitness-based but also touches on life, cancer and family. This blog has helped me see that a wide circle of friends and family can aid in recovery and provide a welcome outlet for the fears that come with a cancer diagnosis. I have been able to connect with people all over the world who have had similar experiences to mine. I love that feeling of community and support, and I’m grateful for it.

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I must confess this story has been difficult to write. I have walked through life, up to this point, as a fairly confident human being. Cancer has changed that for me. Here is my truth: I hate how cancer has affected my self-worth. I dislike worrying about whether it could come back. I dislike how it has changed my body. I am worried about the constant low level pain I am experiencing. Most of all, I am unhappy that I have such a negative take on who and what I am right now.

Having written all that, I am not wallowing in this, though I know it might appear otherwise. I’m just being brutally honest. I don’t want anyone in my life telling me, “But you look beautiful” or “You are just crying out for attention” or “There are other more pressing problems in this world.” I know, I’m not, and no freaking kidding.

Right now, for me, there is a real disconnect between my self-worth (which like everyone’s, should ideally be high) and how horrible I feel emotionally and physically. I am struggling with how I feel about myself right now. I’m not in a healthy place. I do expect my self-worth will bounce right back. I have every expectation this will happen. But it will take time. Time and patience. I utterly comprehend this intellectually. However, I am someone who lives in the moment. I can’t live in the past, so I should try not to dwell on it, only learn from it. I can’t live in the future because I will miss today’s moments. I’m not luxuriating in my situation right now, but I am trying my hardest to get through it — and I can’t get through something if I don’t acknowledge it.

In the meantime, I will be seeing a psychologist to help me through this. I need to let it all go, but I can’t do this alone. It’s hard for me to talk about this to friends and family because I fear the dreaded eye roll. It is hard to verbalize what I am going through without worrying about sounding needy or whiny. But it is much easier to write about it. I can imagine everyone being supportive and helpful as they read my story.

A version of this post originally appeared on Capable Fitness.

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The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What was one thing you thought immediately after your diagnosis that you completely changed your mind about? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Image via Thinkstock Images


When I was young, my mom worked at the Kmart salon, making a living giving perms to the elderly while they were shopping. I would go to work with her, watching her flawless beauty as she mingled with clients. She was elegant then, with long hair that reached the bottom of her shoulder blades in waves like the ocean cascading against the sand.

Danielle Dayney's mother

Her hair, dark and lovely, was unusually long. On warm days, she would pull it back in a loose braid at the nape of her olive-colored neck, keeping her bangs feathered and full of Aqua Net, a style she couldn’t quite let go of. In the evenings, she would drag me, by the hand, over to the couch so I could brush her long locks as she watched television. I would fill it with colorful barrettes, pretending I was the stylist and she was my client. Of course, I wanted to be just like her.

One summer day, her Irish temper ran to a boil and she impulsively chopped every bit of it off. We both stood in the kitchen, a mane at our feet, and cried, mourning the change.

Eventually, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she left that job at Kmart and started styling hair in our kitchen. My mom would wash her clients’ hair in the same porcelain sink that she cleaned our Tupperware, never once dropping the Virginia Slim hanging from her burgundy lips. Gold bracelets rattled as she scrubbed then rinsed the suds with the faucet. I watched her long fingers, painted brightly, as she permed, trimmed and shaved, always in awe of her artistic flare.

After many more years, one more child and a nursing degree, my mom eventually stopped doing hair. Though she loved hairdressing, she thought that nursing and helping people was her true calling. And it was. Her kind-hearted, selfless nature made her the perfect kind of nurse. 

Unfortunately, not long after she started nursing, she also found out she had cancer. By the time the doctor spotted it in her routine colonoscopy, it had already metastasized and overtaken her body, spreading from her colon to her liver and her lymph nodes. Though she was against it, she started aggressive chemotherapy to salvage what she could of her body. My mom was devastated because she could no longer practice nursing.

In the end, the chemotherapy only delayed the inevitable.

Four years later, on the day that she died, the cancer and poison of her drugs forced everything about her, including her hair, to change drastically. It was no longer thick and flowing, but instead brittle and matted to her ashen skin. Her eyes were closed tight as she slept away the pain with a morphine drip. I used her brush to gently untangle her thinning brown tufts and move them away from her eyes, though I don’t know if she could feel my presence. I wanted so much to remember how it was to be on our couch as a child, filling her waves with colors of the rainbow, but the papery, unnatural feel of her hair was forbidding me. Still, I let my fingers linger there, wishing for a different outcome.

Despite my mom being gone more than four years, I think of her often. When I think of her, it’s sometimes as the hairdresser, or sometimes as the nurse, but always as the most beautiful woman — selfless, loving and easy to get along with.

And today, more than ever, I want to be just like her.

Follow this journey on Danielle Dayney: Life in Details.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten or a mantra that spoke to you following your diagnosis?  Find out how to email us a story submission here.

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