When I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago this month, I never asked, “Why?” Asking why would have been a logical response, especially considering the fact that I was a three-time marathon runner, ate a (very!) healthy diet, and didn’t have an inkling of breast cancer in my family. However, rather than ask “Why?” I wondered, “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” As it turns out, one of the silver linings of my experience with breast cancer was learning some valuable life lessons.
Lesson #1: Honor the feelings and let them out. Prior to my experience with FBC [female breast cancer], I was a grin-and-bear it kind of girl who was reluctant to share any feeling other than joy. However, once ‘Roid Rage (the intense feelings of anger brought on by pre-chemotherapy steroids) and Chemo-Sobby (tears at the drop of a hat brought on by the chemo drugs) entered my life, I had no choice but to let it all out. And you know what? Expressing feelings, all feelings, happens to feel good, really good. Though I no longer have either ‘Roid Rage or Chemo-Sobby (thank goodness!), I continue to openly express my feelings. And it still feels good!
Lesson #2: Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. As John Donne so memorably wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” It took a cancer diagnosis for me to really get the meaning of this. I now know that seeking support is both the loving and strong thing to do. By getting the right help, whether in making decisions or making meals, I came to realize that letting go of control and delegating is a way to honor yourself and to honor those around you.
Lesson #3: No Should-ing. I used to be a big “should-er.” I was always saying “I should go to this. I should do that.” True, there are certain things in the world that are not options, e.g., death, taxes, eating, breathing (in the reverse order, of course!), and reading to your children. I also believe that being kind is a moral imperative that is nonnegotiable. Aside from these things, “should-ing” does not make for a happy life. I now make decisions based on whether or not it will make my heart sing.
Lesson #4: It’s just hair. One of the things that I was most anxious about prior to starting chemotherapy was losing my hair. There are studies that show that for many women, losing their hair is worse than losing a breast. As soon as my hair started falling out, I had a Chemo Coiffure (i.e, I shaved my head). What I learned was that anticipation was far worse than reality. While I didn’t exactly think bald was beautiful, I realized bald wasn’t so bad.
Lesson #5: Breast cancer isn’t a fight (at least for me). Were the treatments awful? Yes. Was it a struggle? Yes, of course. Omnipresent in our culture are cancer “fighting” messages. Frankly, the thought of “fighting” makes my stomach turn and has a tremendously pejorative connotation. Why add insult (fighting) to injury (cancer)? So, if I didn’t “fight,” WTF did I do, you ask? I harnessed energy. I found silver linings. I laughed (at myself, mostly). I rested. I allowed the treatments to work. I tried a whole lot of things that I’d never done before (e.g., giving myself IV fluids, getting fitted for a custom bustier bolus, writing). I didn’t fight. I looked for inner peace and understanding and saw my life as a blessing full of silver linings.
This is the third article in a four-part series by Hollye Jacobs to run during the Breast Cancer Awareness month of October. Jacobs is a full-time writer and speaker, and as a nurse, co-facilitates support groups and consults with children of parents who have cancer. For more information, go to Jacobs’s blog, thesilverpen.com. A video of her work is on independent.com.