The one thing I hear, is the idea that having cancer changes your outlook on life. The first letter we received from a friend when I got my diagnosis of breast cancer contained such sentiment. We were all, in our 30s, with small children, careers, stability finally just beginning to take hold. This friend too, was dealing with cancer at a young age. It was difficult to accept in the moment as we both read the words of the terrible journey about to arrive. Words meant to offer a taste of reality and encouragement. “I bet you and your wife look at life differently now”, he wrote. Maybe that’s true now. Back then, I had no idea what he really meant. I thought it was simply a cliché meant to offer understanding.
I am now a part of a club I never wanted to join. Saying the words, “cancer survivor” does not yet easily roll off my tongue. When it comes at a time in life when I am just starting to raise my children, it is especially isolating as an identity. I thought breast cancer was an older woman’s disease. I felt side swiped. I had a short career. I had young children just starting school. Being thirty-something, everything is out-of-order and chaotic as the momentum of one day bleeds into the next. Reflecting on the words of that letter we received from someone who “got it”, it was finally sinking in how different it was to cope with a catastrophic illness at a young age. He was the only friend we knew our age who had cancer. Even now as I write this, we remain uniquely apart from our peers facing this disease and how it has changed our lives. A support system is what is needed to simply get through the day. At this point in my life, I was the support system for everyone else.
Our children watched their strong mother melt away as my body quickly weakened during treatment. It was lonely at the hospital and especially at the breast care specialist. “How is your mother doing?” asked by a stranger, who was surprised when I got up wearing my plastic ID bracelet. Most of my roommates at chemotherapy spoke of their grandchildren and they complained of vacations never planned. Their self pity made me angry as I watched their adult children who were my age escort and assist them through their ordeal. There I was, with my small children too young to take life over; my own parents too far away and frail to be of assistance. In the beginning, you get a pile of brochures and booklets telling you what to expect. None of those materials told me how to hold back my tears when my 6-year-old hugged me one morning saying, “I forget what you looked like before the cancer when you had long hair”. Then depression and guilt looms as my 8-year-old son helps his little brother pack his lunch for school while I lay on the couch motionless. I am supposed to be there for them, not the other way around. It was then I realized my children’s ability to cope would depend on taking my lead. I strayed from the usual pity train and began to smile my way through treatment. I did not take lite of it, but rather I chose to change my attitude and mental outlook. I established stronger emotional boundaries from those that would take pity on me or brought me down. I surrounded myself with those who knew me best and would understand how to lift me. Since then, I have learned to mourn the losses and accept life as it comes. People tell you to keep a positive attitude. It doesn’t always come easy, but it is a choice that has the power to change things. “That’s what he meant.” I realized.
I have certainly had my moments, but one thing I discovered as I faced all the difficult treatments was that people smiled back when I smiled. Others felt inspired and encouraged as I shared my new outlook. I received many positive notes and a new cheering section began to form in my life. I shared this with my husband and my sons which served to strengthen them. The reflected smiles boosted my strength. I watched my sons cope without fear and their resilience connected us with roots like that of an oak tree. The language of self-pity was absent in our home and our positive outlook expressed daily.
That first letter is rooted in our souls. I remember wondering how they dealt with work and the kids. Now we are forever connected in this ugly experience. It’s all those little things in everyday life that we take for granted; when suddenly we cannot do those simple things. It forces us to think upon our mortality. It reveals our true vulnerability and the fragile nature of life itself. Everyone warns you when you have children, “they grow up fast”! That has a whole new meaning in the face of cancer. The resilience my children have shown propels me forward. I realize they are much stronger than me and I have learned to shift my outlook on life to the wise innocence of a child. We now leave the dishes in the sink and cuddle up to a good book. Cancer interrupted our busy lives. My children taught me to focus on today.
2016 Update: Our friend who wrote the letter passed away at the age of 46 surrounded by family and friends. He leaves behind a beautiful wife and his teenage children. He lived a full life cut short too soon by cancer. He will be greatly missed and forever in the memory of those who knew and loved him.
© Hidden Dragons, 2009 – 2016