13. What Cancer Did for Me

13. What Cancer Did for Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

What Cancer Did for Me

My cancer scare changed my life. I’m grateful for every new, healthy day I have. It has helped me prioritize my life.

~Olivia Newton-John

At the age of thirty-five, I stood in the shower and felt something unusual. I double-checked. There was definitely a lump in my breast. Throughout a restless night, I continued to check, praying it was my imagination, an anomaly, anything but a real bump. At morning’s light, it had not disappeared. As soon as my doctor’s office opened, I called. Over the next few days, the doctors shuffled me from one test center to another.

When I heard the diagnosis, my world changed. With no family history and being only thirty-five, my doctors seemed as surprised as I was. I spent several days in a fog, feeling a range of emotions from panic to denial. When I finally accepted the diagnosis and my new reality, I decided to do for myself what others could not.

First, I had to face it. The onslaught of treatment required my complete mental, physical, and spiritual attention. I wanted to be well informed, so I went to a nearby medical library and dug through journals and books to research ductal carcinoma. I headed to the copier and got enough reading material to educate myself about the various options my team of doctors had suggested — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

The next morning, I organized the articles according to the doctor’s three-step treatment plan. To avoid drowning in information overload, I focused only on surgery — the how and why. By the time I entered the operating room, I was prepared as well as I could be for someone losing a body part.

After several days, I had the most frightening moment — looking in the mirror at my scarred body. I removed the final wrapping. Although I looked like a patchwork quilt, I also felt like one, patched together by the love and support of my friends and family during the previous overwhelming weeks.

While healing, I tackled chemo and radiation information in bitesize pieces. I felt better prepared to work with my doctor to choose the best options to fight my disease. For me, this meant agreeing to chemo but going against my doctor’s advice for radiation. It would have killed off a portion of my heart and lungs, and I wasn’t willing to compromise my active lifestyle for the “chance” to extend my life.

The first time I went for chemotherapy, my jaw dropped. Not only did the strong smell of chemicals take my breath away, but the large room lined with lounge chairs also made me gasp. It wasn’t as I’d imagined. Men and women weren’t cloistered in private rooms or left in the dark to face the chemo demon. Instead, patients were lined up in rows like cattle hooked to milking machines. Uncomfortable with invading this personal time, I avoided eye contact with those hooked to chemical drips and instead focused on my nurse as she took me deeper into the room.

She offered me a lounge chair between two other patients who chatted casually, ignoring the drip of red and blue chemicals in their IVs. When I sat between them, I apologized for the interruption. Instead of being offended, they brought me into the conversation. They asked me to share my story and then shared theirs. It wasn’t long before I realized my form of cancer was a cinch compared to theirs. How could I feel sorry for myself when others were dealing with worse?

An hour into their treatment, my new friends fell asleep. I soon learned it was a common side effect from some chemicals. I dug out my historical fiction and started reading. During future visits, my chemotherapy sessions became my escape. While the chemicals dripped, I traveled to other places and times. It made the hours spent attached to the IV seem less useless.

For the next six months, my routine became simple — move from the bed to the couch to the bathroom and then back again. On the days when I felt better I performed routine tasks and went to work.

The months of treatment wore me down. I learned to graciously accept offers of kindness. If someone wanted to bring dinner, I said, “Yes, thank you.” An offer to help clean house? Absolutely. Grocery shopping? Oh, please. My friends and family were a godsend. Without them, it would have been easy to crawl into a dark corner and huddle there.

I knew my spiritual approach to the challenge of the Big C would be just as important as my physical healing. I read Bible verses about God’s healing touch. I also imagined my own heroic Pac-Woman traveling in my blood stream, chomping down on carcinoma cells. She was fearless and relentless. From my little toe to the top of my head, I pictured my system being cleaned of bad cells. This thought process not only empowered me, it allowed me to focus on feelings and not just the overwhelming physical toll cancer had taken on my body.

Other patients had told me it would take at least a year for my body to regain the energy I’d once had and for my mind to clear. The day I woke feeling like my old self, I wasted no time. I opened myself to life — new people and places, more variety, and all with unconditional joy.

My normal has changed. Now, I don’t hesitate to drive nine hours to see a reported rare bird or crawl through a snake-infested jungle in South America to enjoy a rare orchid. When asked to taste a foreign dish of odd-looking parts, I think why not? Trying goat innards is nothing compared to beating cancer.

Each person has a different road to travel when faced with a life-altering challenge. I would have preferred to not have the Big C in my life. But without it, I might have missed two things — opportunity and growth. Now, I tackle challenges and changes with more gusto and compassion. And, I’m grateful for each and every day no matter what it brings.

~Gail Molsbee Morris

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