I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer when I was 39 years old, then again with a recurrence last year at age 44. Before my initial diagnosis, I was caught up in the day-to-day life struggles of a typical almost-40-year-old working mom, and I didn’t take much time to think about what I really wanted or needed out of life.
Cancer changed all that; it helped me put my priorities in order, not sweat the small stuff, and find a way to enjoy my life more. I've thought a lot about how the cancer experience has changed the “big picture” of my life. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my healing journey.
1. Cancer helped me find my joy.
I love to ride horses. As a kid, I had a chubby, opinionated horse named Bonnie. She was my first love. But childhood passions fade and time marches on; family, jobs, and finances intervened, and 32 years passed before I found my joy again. When my 12-year-old daughter asked me if she could take riding lessons, it was just a matter of time before I started getting involved myself. I could feel the “horse crazy” welling up in me, just like it did when I was ten years old.
Enter Mikey, a 21-year-old Tennessee Walker thoroughbred cross. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was definitely love. Immediately I had visions of riding in competitions and picking up where my childhood dreams had left off. But Mikey came into my life about a month before I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. Our training never really got off the ground before it was interrupted by surgeries, radiation, and endless rounds of chemotherapy.
But none of that mattered. On the days I could get to the barn, Mikey was always there waiting for me, ready to be groomed, stroked and loved. He taught me that my joy didn’t have to be riding, but could be the simple act of caring for another creature and all the good therapy that entails. He taught me that it's important to have a passion that's all my own. He taught me that life is too short to give up on my joy.
2. Cancer helped me learn to take it easier on myself as a parent.
One thing that cancer has taught me is that, with rare exceptions, things are pretty much all good, especially when it comes to parenting. Like all parents, I love my kids so much! But everyone knows that parenting can be an incredibly tough job, and some days it seems pretty thankless. The range of emotions we can experience in a single day of parenting can vary anywhere from anger and exasperation to incredible pride and joy.
The old me used to get really get down on the bad parenting days. I would beat myself up for not doing a good enough job, not being the ideal parent. But cancer has taught me to embrace the full range of the parenting experience. I appreciate the good, the bad, and the in-between. I'm not a perfect parent (not even close), but I love that I'm here to experience it all: the first days of school, the homework tantrums, the teenage eye rolling (OK, maybe not that!). I savor everything, and I try to remember that every day we get through is another day I'm here for them. Isn’t that the most important thing?
3. Cancer inspired me to give back.
After I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 I underwent a bilateral mastectomy. After the procedure, I really struggled with the lack of information that was available for my recovery. With thousands of women undergoing this surgery, how was it possible that there could be so little information available to us about how to heal ourselves?
As an occupational therapist, I knew that I could help find answers to the questions many women would have after mastectomy. I became inspired by this topic and set out to create a resource women could turn to for answers. Eventually I ended up writing a book, and now I do readings and lectures on the topic of rehabilitation and recovery after mastectomy. Cancer inspired me to give back, and I’m not alone. I’m always amazed by the things women do after being faced with breast cancer: volunteering, mentoring, and sharing their stories so that other women who are faced with the same challenges can benefit from their experiences.
I’m not finished learning from and trying to make sense of my cancer experience, and I know there are more lessons to be learned. But for now, I’m happy to be finishing treatment, spending time with my family, feeling good, and enjoying the little things in life.