As someone with crippling anxiety, control plays a major factor in my well-being. I incessantly wipe down my kitchen counters. I make the bed every morning. And my day is ruined if the dishwasher isn’t stacked correctly.
But then you hear, “It’s cancer. Stage Three.” And suddenly you realize you lost control over your body, health, and future. You’re at the mercy of doctor appointments, chemo treatments, surgeries, hair loss, appetite loss, exhaustion, nausea, and the mental anguish that accompanies your new reality.
Over time, I discovered I COULD control one thing: my perspective. The way I perceived the events unfolding around me. The lens through which I viewed the everyday chaos.
Humor became my coping mechanism of choice, and actually showed me how to flip the script. By laughing at the absurdities of my situation (holler to the one eyelash that hung on for dear life), I was able to see through the darkness, and peek at the rays of light shining through. Rather than mourn all that cancer took from me, I chose to focus on the good things that cancer gave me.
Yup. On the surface, cancer strips you of all you know, and all that seems certain. But if you mentally flip that script, turn it around and upside down, you can rewrite your narrative and regain control. Cancer took my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, dignity, strength, and confidence. I could dwell on that. But I don’t. Instead, I choose to celebrate everything cancer brought me.
Healthier eating habits
Look, I’m not immune to a good Taco Tuesday (#NeverEnoughGuac). But these days, my taco love is part of a clean, well-balanced diet. Prior to cancer, I had a hard time resisting anything with chocolate, salt, or even better…chocolate AND salt. I kept thinking I’d “start tomorrow” – until I had to start today. I could no longer afford to procrastinate on filling my body with vitamins, nutrients, and the wholesome foods it needed. I completely revamped my post-cancer diet. Partly because I want to reduce my risk for a recurrence. Partly because I feel so much better when I eat clean. And partly because I now cherish my body, and refuse to take it for granted.
Healthier exercise habits
Before The Big C, I’d run a handful of marathons, but I never took my fitness too seriously. I didn’t cross-train. I didn’t truly push myself. And forget trying to hold a plank for more than five seconds. I had days in between chemo treatments where all I could muster was a short walk. Or a stroll to the bedroom. My entire body felt weak, powerless, and devoid of useful function. But everything changed when I picked up that first set of dumbbells. It was a major struggle at first; I was using muscle groups I’d never used before and I collapsed after every training session. But I quickly got addicted to the victory of week-to-week improvements. Cancer and chemo left me feeling weak; weightlifting (and almond butter protein smoothies) gave me my power back.
Anxiety and panic attacks have been as prominent in my life as yoga pants and The Real Housewives franchises. Yet, I never bothered to seek therapy and dig into the roots of my distress. I figured everyone has anxiety, so I could probably just live with it. Once I finished chemo, I changed my mind. The treatments and surgery left me overwhelmed and depleted. Talking to a therapist kickstarted my healing process. We quickly dug through the layers of stress that suffocated me, and I had a new chance to rid myself of toxic thought patterns and behaviors that weren’t serving me. My only regret? Waiting so long to get help.
A fresh sense of self-awareness (and self-assurance)
I spent my entire twenties (and part of my thirties) trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be. I thought I had a pretty good idea. Alas, those fateful words, “You have cancer” promptly shattered my identity and made me question everything about myself. Who was this sick, bald, sad person? It couldn’t be me. Cancer broke me down and stripped away my sense of self. But here’s the beauty: I could rebuild myself. As someone stronger. More resilient. Who prioritizes herself and her wants, needs, and goals. Who works on not comparing herself to other people because we are all unique individuals with unique experiences. Who tapped into a new spiritual and meditation practice. And who enjoys a whole new world.
I think it’s impossible to endure a life-changing event and not learn from it. By focusing on the positive changes resulting from trauma, I can finally see things clearly and take control of my narrative. Cancer doesn’t define me; it’s merely something that happened TO me. And with it came some incredible gifts.