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Cancer Taught Me That Self-Care Isn't Selfish, It's Essential

In early March 2017 I had a tumor removed from the bottom of my ribcage that doctors where 100000 percent convinced was benign. But on March 10, 2017 I received a phone call I will never forget.

My surgeon called me personally to tell me my biopsy results had come back. And the tumor wasn’t benign after all.

It was diagnosed as Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans (DFSP), a rare form of soft tissue sarcoma. So rare it’s nicknamed the “unicorn cancer.”

After he told me I had cancer I asked him if I could put the phone on speaker. And I’m grateful I did. Because after that my world stopping spinning. And I didn’t hear a word he said.

For days after I got my diagnosis it felt like I was trapped under water, unable to think, unable to move, unable to breathe — even though I was on dry land.

I had almost six months of being dependent on IV nutrition. I still had multiple chronic illnesses that were either trying to end my life, or make it 10 thousand times more difficult.

And now I had cancer.

I didn’t know whether or not to laugh at the irony of the fact that the girl with the impossibly complicated (and nearly impossible to diagnose) auto immune disease somehow also managed to get unicorn cancer.

Or to lay in my bed, and drown in the river of tears that were threatening to burst out of my eyes at a second’s notice.

Not knowing what to do. I plastered on a  smile, pretending to be brave. As each new day came and went, every fear and every aspect of the unknown that came with my new diagnosis pooled inside of me and made it harder and harder to breathe.

And made me feel more and more numb inside.

A couple of days before I was going to meet with my oncologist for the first time, a girl I had never met from my valley (who had just recently ended a battle with active cancer) sent me a message and asked me if I wanted to get lunch. With tears brimming my eyes I typed back I would.

I was beyond grateful to be able to talk to someone who had been in this situation before, and to be able ask her the questions I’ve been wanting to ask someone and get the answers to.

We got to the restaurant, and I almost immediately asked her the question that had been haunting me the most: “How did you get your family through your cancer?”

When I asked her that at first she just stared at me with a puzzled look. So I asked her again: “How did you get your family through your cancer? My family has already been through so much when it comes to my other illnesses, and I’m afraid it’s going to be too much for them. Also, my brother is currently on deployment and I just don’t want to add any extra stress to his already full plate. How can I make sure my family is OK through all of this?”

And then she told me something that absolutely changed my life. With determination to get her point across, as if bursting through her eyes, she responded:

“First of all you have to realize you are going through this, not them. You are the one who has cancer, not them. Your life is forever going to be changed. And you have to figure out how you are  going to deal with all this.”

And after she said that, I just sat there, absolutely dumfounded. Because I realized that before she said it.

I had never thought, or even cared about, how I was going to mentally, physically, and emotionally deal with my cancer diagnosis. And even when it came to my other diagnosis or diseases.

I realized I truly have never given my mental health, emotional well-being, and how I was going to deal with all that was loaded on my plate, a second thought.

I always just swept my emotions under the rug. Did what I needed to do to keep my malfunctioning body alive. And found a way to help someone else who was going through a hard time. So the sunshine that only service can bring would brighten the dark fearful spots in my heart.

It took a cancer diagnosis, and the much needed words from an almost stranger (who I now have the privilege to call a friend) for me to realize self-care isn’t selfish, it’s essential.

I still firmly believe one of the best ways to find joy is to serve others. But you can’t just hide every bad emotion you feel under the rug. And honestly you can’t fully help others until you help yourself.

Sometimes, you have to lay on your bed, and sob like the tears just may never stop, as you listen to the same Ed Sheeran song on repeat.

Sometimes, you have to yell, scream, and even throw shoes in a child-like rage in Ross store because life isn’t fair, and chronically ill girls shouldn’t also get cancer. (I may have learned this lesson through personal experience.)

Sometimes, you have to take yourself away from the world, from your situation, and lay in a fabulously warm Epsom salt-infused bathtub and watch ‘The Office’ on Netflix on your iPad, and try to remind yourself there is still joy in this world.

Sometimes, you have to have the strength to let that wall of fake healthy smiles, and saying “I’m OK,” “It’s fine,” and “I can do this,” crumble to the ground.

And admit sometimes it’s good, and even healthy, not to be OK.

Life is full of so many  of emotions — good, bad, happy, awful, exciting, aggravating, and sad. It took a cancer diagnosis to teach me that fully practicing self-care, and living life to its fullest, requires you to be brave enough to let yourself fully experience every single emotion life has to offer.

Remember, self-care isn’t selfish, it’s essential. Stay strong and always smile on.

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Getty  Images photo via JZhuk