A Hero’s Journey: The 4 Lessons I Learned From Cancer
Looking back on my life, I never really felt like I fit in to any club or cultural subset as much as I feel like a member of my current group – Cancer Survivor.
At the risk of sounding too formal, I will need to give you some background. I’m 32, my son is 4 months old, and seven months ago I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. I’m pleased to report we caught it while it is still curable. And now that the hardest parts of my journey are behind me, I am reluctant to admit that this struggle has been a defining moment, a kind of hero’s journey for me. One I actually don’t regret.
That day in May, when I received the news and diagnosis, I had the same feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had on 9/11. I knew it was going to be an important day, a “before and after” kind of day. As in, “That was before 9/11.” Everything else moving forward would be “post-diagnosis.” I felt it then and I still feel it now.
But I also feel more seasoned, more aware, as if my glasses have been cleaned and I never even knew they were dirty. My perception has changed and along with it, some of my beliefs. So much so that I think cancer was always meant to be a part of my story.
And so, as with any hero’s journey, there are lessons learned along the way. These are mine.
1. Vanity is relative
My situation is unique. Prior to becoming pregnant in December 2017, I had just spent the last two years losing weight and gaining four out of the six in six-pack abs. I was in the best shape of my life. I dressed better, I did eyeliner, I was a fully formed 30-something.
Pregnancy changed my definition of beauty and of femininity pretty quickly, starting around the time my wardrobe shrank to just five shirts and two pairs of pants. It changed again when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Flowing hair, an hourglass shape, and bouncy boobs do not make a woman. But God it feels like they do. Especially when I look at Margot Robbie.
I used to notice that I fixated on the midsection of actors and models. Now, I watch their hair. I look at the colors, the styles, and I fantasize about what I will do when mine grows back. And here’s the worst part: I didn’t even lose all my hair — only on the crown of my head — so I can still wear it in a ponytail and “pass” for not being sick. That’s right — a closeted cancer patient is lecturing you on vanity.
Point is, I’m not perfect. I now see my femininity in other areas – my eyes, my warmth, my caretaking. Because the other stuff can be fleeting and it some of it floated away from me.
2. Health is underrated
I know I’m younger than most people who say this, but be grateful for your health. It is so intangible, yet I promise you feel every inch of it slipping from your grasp when you lose it. Health allows you freedom, choices, independence, and a happiness that needs no compromise, no planning. Value this. Never take it for granted.
I write this only 10 days after my final chemotherapy infusion. I don’t feel better yet. I’m still fragile. And at an age where I should be the strongest, at a point in my life where I want to protect my son like a mother lion, I can’t. Instead, I have to ask for help when unloading the stroller and sometimes I need people to drive me around. I hate it every time.
So whatever health fad catches your interest this week, whether it’s going organic, kale smoothies, pilates, or cutting down on alcohol, your future self might thank you. Because once your health is gone, it can be really tough to get it back.
3. Sometimes strength isn’t a choice – it’s your only option
Many people have said to me, “I don’t know how you do this. I couldn’t do this. You are strong and/or brave for doing this.” The “this” is going through a cancer diagnosis while pregnant and 31 years old, a lumpectomy at 32 weeks gestation, an IVF cycle to preserve embryos just four weeks after delivering my son, and three months of agonizing chemo beginning just one week later.
I know it comes from a good place, a place of admiration. But you don’t really have a choice but to be strong. Shit goes down. Phones ring at odd hours and people die. Cars crash. Loved ones get sick. And it’s in these moments, when you experience a sudden tragedy that is so jarring you almost feel Earth’s plates shift beneath your feet, that you realize for the first time what it feels like to have your choice taken from you.
That’s why it irritates me when people so freely give me accolades. When you get rear-ended by some asshole and walk away unscathed, people don’t congratulate you. They just hug you close.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t regret my treatment. The opposite, in fact – I’ve come to appreciate it. It’s taught me a lot, in its own destructive way. But I didn’t choose Cancer. It chose me. And when that happens, when life writes in a big plot twist, you just keep going.
4. Patience is a virtue – one I don’t really have yet
Pregnancy takes too long. Labor most certainly takes too long. Chemo takes way too long. Getting my son to go to sleep takes too long.
I thought my life would slow down, but in reality, it’s still as full as it ever was, it’s now just full of waiting. I’m waiting to be able to press “play” on my life again. I’m waiting to feel like myself again. I’m waiting for my son Zack to close his eyes so I can enjoy my little respite, my tea and the next episode of “Girls.”
I can’t say I have learned patience. Rather, I have just realized how important patience is and how much I need it. So for today, I’ll keep meditating less than regularly and working on counting to 10 before I lose my shit.
Thankfully, most of the waiting is over now. I’m ready to start participating in my life again, in my choices, and to start fully appreciating my freedom. Like I said, it’s a hero’s journey and the dragon is all but defeated. Just a few more things I’m waiting on. Patiently.