Sheri Brisson

@sheri-brisson | contributor
Sheri Sobrato Brisson is a brain tumor survivor who has started and facilitated support groups for children with illness and their families for over 20 years with organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Brain Tumor Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and Packard Children’s Hospital. She has served as a board member for many children’s health nonprofit organizations, including the American Cancer Society San Jose, UCSF/Mt. Zion Auxiliary, Creighton Health Institute and Okizu Foundation. Brisson received her master’s degree in counseling from Santa Clara University and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University.
Sheri Brisson

Revisiting My Cancer Journal, 30 Years After My Cancer Diagnosis

When I was diagnosed with brain cancer as a young adult, I remember thinking, “What would I do if I could survive 10 more years? How would I change? Who would I become?” As my treatment progressed, I tried to answer these questions through journaling. Now 30 years after my diagnosis, I used the anniversary to look back at what I wrote. One thing I found is that I wasn’t concerned with writing beautiful essays or eloquent entries filled with imagery. Instead I was a list-maker. My old notebooks are filled with my ideas about how I planned to create a better, healthier, version of myself. As it became clear that my treatment was working and that I really might have 10 more years, or 20, or even 30, I rebuilt my life with these bullet points in my journal as my guide—my insights and objectives; the words of inspiration I heard, read, or discovered within myself; the emotions I held in my heart that I poured out on the page; my limiting beliefs that I aimed to shed and those aspects of myself I wanted to change. Here are some of the things I wrote: 1. Believe there is enough time. After my diagnosis, I couldn’t shake the idea that I wouldn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted to do—whether in my whole life, or within each single day. I loved life (and still do!) and have so much to accomplish. It wasn’t until I began to realize that “not having enough time” was just a construct—just a belief I could change­—that I stopped rushing to cram so much into every day and starting accepting my experiences and accomplishments for what they were. When I stopped rushing, I found that every experience had more meaning—that these things I could have rushed past held far more richness than the next hurried thing I had been rushing toward. By slowing down and sometimes doing less, I got more. 2. Allow yourself to be selfish. Cancer allowed me, for the first time in my life, to focus on myself. Cancer gave me permission to say, “I’m important” and to say “no” when I needed. I let myself “eat dessert first” and not feel guilty about it. Now in my life after cancer, I try to realize I still have the right to make myself a priority. It took being sick to let myself come first. 3. Being positive is not being “up” all the time. At first, I coped with my cancer diagnosis the same way I coped with other difficulties in my life: By not letting myself feel my emotions. I had to rally, be in charge, solve the problem, stay positive! Eventually, through my journey, I learned that being positive wasn’t just about being happy or strong. For me, being “positive” meant realizing that I could impact the course of my disease. When I finally let the tears come, that’s when my emotional healing started. 4. Put yourself “out there.” I know firsthand how isolating illness and the emotional recovery from illness can be. Without letting others know what you need or what you think or feel, all they can do is guess. And they usually guess wrong. Being yourself—being real—gives people something to relate to and draws them in. I desperately needed this connection during my cancer journey, and putting myself out there as myself was the only way to find it. 5. Define the meaning of illness. At some point, many people facing health challenges ask, “Why me?” I know I did. In fact, I love this question because it’s a doorway into exploring the things illness can actually bring to your life. For me, my cancer gave me freedom to choose the life I wanted to live. My mission became to know myself well enough to be who I am in the world. And from that day, I have sought to understand the complexity of who I am and what makes me, me so that I can be authentic in my relationships and my life. My cancer experience helped me to discover what “me” meant in the first place. It’s hard to believe I began my fight against brain cancer 30 years ago. Now as I look back at what I wrote, I truly believe that the process of introspection I set down in my cancer journal has helped me. Today, cancer remains a part of my identity, and I am proud of it. While it forced me to change, it also provided the opportunity to rebuild myself with consciousness and intention—to free myself from who I had been so that I could become who I am. Sheri Brisson is founder of the site DiggingDeep.org. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Sheri Brisson

Cancer Survivor Quits Acting Strong and Starts Being Strong

You’d think being a nearly 30-year cancer survivor that I’d love the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But I don’t. Why not? Because it doesn’t offer any advice about how to get from here to there. It doesn’t offer any wisdom about how to survive. But now after so many years of survivorship, I actually think I’ve finally found a new understanding of this saying — one that reflects my own experience of reestablishing connection with a self that I lost during my treatment. At age 24, I was diagnosed with an aggressive malignant brain tumor and told that no one had lived more than six months with this tumor type. We didn’t talk about dying in my family. “We don’t have to think about things that may not happen. We can’t get depressed,” my mom would say. But couldn’t we admit we were scared to death and had no idea what to do? No, we thought we had to “stay strong” if I was going to survive. So I did everything I could to “stay strong.” I read every self-help book I could find. I took notes. I absorbed all those positive messages, so much so that I began to think their ideas were actually my ideas. I took charge, I managed all the aspects of my healing I could, I had a positive attitude and I made all the right changes in my life — eating better, exercising, choosing to do what I was passionate about. I joined a patient empowerment program and started visualizing, doing yoga, exploring holistic medicine, setting life goals. All these were in my tool kit of coping strategies to help me “feel strong” and “stay strong.” I considered myself the perfect “power coper,” but I hadn’t even begun what I would later learn would be the critical step in moving on from my illness — to heal emotionally — by acknowledging and feeling through the trauma of having had cancer. But in order for me to heal emotionally, I had to stop all this doing — and just start feeling. Sure I had been told so many times the importance of expressing my feelings, but I simply could not do it. It wasn’t natural for me and, honestly, not feeling was a way of protecting myself. It wasn’t until five years after my diagnosis, when I was out of the danger zone, and then faced with another unrelated medical problem, that all the feelings that I had stuffed for so long came pouring out. The floodgates opened when a near stranger simply asked me, “Why are you so different?” Without his knowing it, he put words to exactly what I had been feeling for a very long time. I did feel different, misunderstood and alone. My cancer had taken my carefree young adult years and added a level of maturity to me I did not want. It seemed I couldn’t relate to anyone anymore, and in realizing this came incredible sadness. Once I started to feel, it lasted a long time. Why was I so different? And who am I now? If I re-engage in life, will it all be taken away again? In order to heal emotionally, I had to allow myself to feel that pain before I could move forward. I had to say goodbye to who I had been before I could discover who I was becoming. It was this emotional healing — the pain of confronting the difficult feelings — where I found my true strength. And in discovering this strength, I quit acting strong and started being strong. “Being strong” to me meant being real, being vulnerable. It takes great strength to be authentic. Being authentic was pretty uncomfortable for me at first, but it is what has made my life after cancer so incredibly rich. Sheri Brisson is founder of the site DiggingDeep.org. Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images 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 .