By Erica Williamson, Breast Cancer Survivor and Contributing Blogger
They call it “fighting” cancer, which always made me wonder if I was doing it wrong, because it felt more like a whole lot of sitting around and waiting. Waiting to feel better. Waiting to get my body, mind and soul back. Waiting to become a survivor. What they don’t tell you is that the battle is only the beginning of your true journey. A journey of self-awareness and courage that can feel a lot like a roller coaster.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37, it was a complete shock. When I first found the lump, the doctors said, “you’re too young” and “there’s no history of breast cancer in your family” and reassured me it was probably just a cyst. Not only was it cancer, it had already spread to my lymph nodes and I was going to require a mastectomy, chemo and radiation. I was a single mom of two teenage daughters and had a stressful and busy career - how was I going to fit cancer into my busy life? But after the initial shock and “why me” moments, I sucked it up and got through every awful thing they do to “cure” you.
One thing that go me through the years of treatments, surgeries, painful procedures, pokes and prods and every tiny trauma that nobody tells you about, was knowing that as soon I was done, I would be “back to normal”, but what I didn’t realize is that I would never be normal again. That may sound a little fatalistic, but it’s true. When all my treatment was finally in the rearview mirror, and I could finally process my feelings, I broke down and had a pity party, where the only one to RSVP was me. And then, after I wiped my tears and straightened my crown, I got back to living my life with full force.
Cancer changes you. I now have scars and aches and pains and my body looks like a jigsaw puzzle, but I also gained a new outlook on life. After my cancer journey, I really started living for me for the first time in my entire life. My 7-year relationship was a casualty of life as the “new” me (no hard feelings, he was my biggest support during my journey and we are still friends). I also took a huge leap of faith and quit my 21 year career to follow my dream of working for a non-profit. I let a few people fade from my life and rekindled anew with others. I wake up every day happy to be alive and ready to see where the day takes me. I am now that person that says “YES” to (almost) everything! I take vacations, even when money is tight and I unplug to spend quality time with people I care about. I volunteer...a LOT. I do what I want, when I want...and honestly, I’ve never been happier.
I feel more at peace with who I am at age 45 than I ever have before, and I have my cancer journey to thank for that. I have learned just how strong I can be, and now that I’ve beat cancer, I know that I can handle anything life throws at me. It’s a pretty exhilarating thing to learn about yourself.
When you hear the words, “you have cancer” it feels like a death sentence, but in my case it was actually a “life” sentence in the best possible way. And every time I lose a person I love to cancer, it encourages me to live even harder in their memory. I also try to ignore the tiny voice in the back of my head that reminds me that while I am a survivor now, once you have cancer, it’s never truly gone. In all likelihood, it’s just a matter of time that it rears its ugly head again, and the second time I may not be as lucky. And there is not much I can do about that except live every day that I have with no regrets.
I truly believe that life is what you make of it, and you can either sink or swim. I chose to not only swim, but to carry a life preserver with me so that I can help pull others to shore along with me who may not be strong enough on their own.