Just hours before my mastectomy last year, a hospital representative talked to me about donating my tumor (and the boob it lived in) to research. She explained that my particularly aggressive cancer–Triple Negative–was unusual in a woman of my age and race, and therefore valuable for study. She assured me that when it had fulfilled its purpose, my tumor and its surrounding tissue would be respectfully disposed of.
Perhaps it was in response to my fear or the wonderful la-la drugs dripping into my vein at the time, but this statement struck me as funny. Why should I worry about respecting my tumor? It wasn’t respecting me–it was trying to kill me. Then, in September of 2012, the Cancer Genome Project announced groundbreaking findings that made me sit up and take notice.
The researchers analyzed 825 breast tumors and concluded that Triple Negative breast cancer is very similar in structure to ovarian cancer. That finding could change the way one or both of the cancers are treated. Could it be that mine was chosen to be one of them? And how ironic. As I traveled my breast cancer journey last year, I wrote about the lessons I was learning. The importance of being chosen was one of them. Here are my top six.
Lesson #1: I Was Chosen
I believe everything happens for a reason, even the bad things. True, sometimes our life challenges feel pointless. So consider this twist: What if we are specifically chosen for our challenges because we possess a unique quality to overcome them? And what if those around us learn from our example?
Even better, there might be something about our challenge that could help millions of other people. Think in terms of my bothersome tumor, now taking part in research. This concept didn’t make my breast cancer a cakewalk, but it certainly gave it more purpose.
Lesson #2: Here Be Dragons
Fears are facts of life. We all have them, every day. But sometimes things are most frightening because we don’t understand them clearly. It’s the unknown—the oldest Boogyman of them all. It was the unknown that caused ancient cartographers to put dragons on maps where the land ran out. The labeled the vast seas with the phrase, “Here be dragons.” They didn’t know what was there, so they determined it was all bad.
Truth is, the best way to dispatch with the unknown is to make it known as quickly as possible. Not such an easy task when you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease most of us really know very little about. Shortly after my diagnosis, I recalled a saying my mother repeated ad nauseum: “You can even eat an elephant a bite at a time.” Of course, she was right (mothers usually are). Breaking my fear into smaller, digestible portions by doing a little research each day made the whole situation more palatable. Before I knew it, I had eaten the entire elephant.
Page 2 of 3 - Lesson #3: It’s Just Hair
At every turn, we’re faced with situations that appear monumental at the time: traffic jams, a slow checkout line, a delayed flight, a bad hair day. In the grand picture, though, how important are they really? Never is the answer more obvious than when chemotherapy has made its mark on your crowning glory. But there are plusses to the situation.
As a bald woman, I saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. I laughed at foul weather and grew to love clever hats. I wondered to myself how many days had been ruined because my hair hadn’t turned out just right. Hmmm … so there’s the lesson. Just like the man said, don’t sweat the small stuff. And hair? Well, it’s just hair.
Lesson #4: A Spoonful of Laughter
There are days when life weighs you down. There are a whole lot of them when you’re fighting a deadly disease. Yet those are the very days you MUST laugh. I’m one of the lucky people whose family passes on a humor gene. It might be our way of avoiding pain, but we’re good at making one another laugh when times are tough. Little did we know we were so cutting edge.
Research currently being done at prestigious hospitals nationwide, including the venerable Mayo Clinic, finds that positive thoughts release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more threatening illnesses. In addition, laughter stretches our facial and abdominal muscles, and causes us to draw in more oxygen, good for our hearts, lungs and other organs.
If your family doesn’t have the humor gene, no worries. Watch TV or movie comedies or Google joke websites. I found a whole list of cancer jokes and told them regularly.
Lesson #5: Courage is Contagious
You don’t have to be rich and famous nor homeless and downtrodden to be courageous. Anyone can be courageous although we don’t often give ourselves credit for being so. Courage is one of those trickle-down virtues. I see someone being courageous so I behave courageously. Someone sees me being courageous, so they’re able to do so as well. Still, this sounds easier than it really is.
Enter the elegant thoughts of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face …. You must do that which you think you cannot.” She was right. When there’s no where else to go but up, what’s your choice? Be courageous.
Lesson #6: You Are a Winner!
When you’re facing down cancer, the pot of gold at the rainbow is to earn the moniker “Cancer Survivor.” But that title didn’t suit me. Oh sure, I wanted to live. But it seemed to me that fighting a fight for your life should earn you the title of “Cancer Winner.”
Page 3 of 3 - Do you think for a minute that when General George Patton fought battles against the Nazis, the President commended him for “surviving?” Ponder the football field and a scene in which Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is congratulated by a reporter for “surviving” a game against their arch rivals, the Bears. Nope, these guys went for the win, and that’s what my fellow Cancer Winners are after as well.
It’s hard to swim up stream, however. And while “winner” is my preferred term, the cancer world will always recognize us as survivors, from the day of our diagnosis. Going with the flow, my dear “winner” friend and I, along with our strategic team, have undertaken a national call to action and created the Women Survivors Alliance.
There are nearly 7 million of us in the U.S. (that’s more people than live in Norway or New Zealand!). We struggle to paddle the muddy waters of survivorship, dealing with issues from the physical and psychosocial, to financial and legal. Our national convention is at the Nashville Gaylord Opryland Resort this year, August 22 - 24 (www.survivorsconvention.com). This not to be missed event will bring women survivors together to network, learn, and be inspired by celebrities, cancer experts, authors and more.
So there you have it – the six most valuable lessons breast cancer taught me. I know there will be critics of this list. A Pollyanna approach may not suit some folks. But here’s my rationale: I had breast cancer. That was a fact I couldn’t control. But I can control how I faced it, how it effected me, and how I could use it to help others. I never considered that my tumor might play such a big part, however. I hope it did me proud!
Award winning writer Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University. She has written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles, and three published books, with a fourth under construction. She is the co-founder of the Women Survivors Alliance (www.survivorsconvention.com), an organization whose mission is to establish a network where women affected by cancer can find their voice, improve their quality of life, and embrace their new normal.
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