I have one more post this month before my life is taken over by NaNoWriMo. As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I am a breast cancer survivor, I wanted to mark this important month. I’ve read some amazing, brave and inspiring posts from other survivors talking about their diagnosis and treatment. But I thought I’d do something a little different.
I want to share some of the positive things that cancer brought to my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m NOT saying that cancer is a positive thing. It’s not. Its a terrible disease that claims too many people every year. But sometimes, a life threatening illness creates bonds and gives you a new appreciation for things you’ve overlooked. I know I'm incredibly lucky to be able to take away anything positive from cancer, and not everyone is so fortunate. This post is just about my personal experience.
I was diagnosed in October of 2011—irony, right? Because I live on a small island, I chose to be fully diagnosed and treated at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. My mom flew down from Canada to meet me, while my husband stayed with our kids.
I was assigned an international case worker, Marianne Brandt, who went above and beyond to make me feel cared for. My surgeon, Dr. John Kiluk, warned me the first time we met, “I am a hugger.” He also promised to visit me in Curacao, which he did last year, during a one-day stopover on a cruise with his family. The staff always treated me like a person first and a patient second, but maybe that’s not so surprising from a top notch facility like Moffitt.
What I didn’t expect was what I received from everyone else. Mom and I stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn in Temple Terrace, a popular hotel amongst patients. My first day at Moffitt was a long day of testing concluding with my official diagnosis: yes, I had breast cancer, and yes, I needed a full mastectomy. My mom and I returned to the hotel to start calling my family with the bad news.
There was a knock on the room door. The manager, Michelle, had sent up wine and a cheese platter! So on that dark day, my mom and I popped open the bottle and had a little party. My mom and I stayed at that hotel many times over the next couple of years, and in an odd way, it felt a little like coming home. The breakfast staff knew us by name and the shuttle drivers went out of their way to accommodate us.
Following the diagnosis, I was given two weeks to fly home, get things organized and return for the surgery. So, my mother flew back to Canada and returned two weeks later. This time she had a beautiful pink patchwork quilt that my family had assembled and sewn in two weeks, covered with messages for me. Amazing! My aunt also flew down to join us.
After the surgery, I needed to stick around for a couple of weeks before I could head home. Because of the cost of staying in the hotel, friends from Canada offered the use of their mobile home in a park in Zephyrhills. For Thanksgiving, we shared a potluck meal with the community. Strangers heard about my cancer, gave me well wishes and encouragement, and shared stories of how cancer had touched their own lives.
My doctors gave me a break over Christmas, but at the beginning of January, I needed to start chemo. Knowing my hair would fall out, the last thing I did before leaving Florida was cut it in a short style. I didn’t want to deal with long hair when I started to go bald. I still remember the stylist who cut my hair. When she heard my story, she refused to let me pay. She was a cancer survivor herself and wanted to do this for me!
So, I returned to Curacao, knowing I had only a couple of weeks to enjoy Christmas before the chemo started. With three kids in school and a husband with a busy job who’d already been holding down the fort for over a month, I was nervous of how I’d manage it all. Time for my amazing friends to step in—they organized meals, rides for the kids, and people to take me to chemo. My best friend in Canada must have worked out my chemo schedule, because after every treatment I’d come home to a little e-mail message from her. Another friend had planned champagne and treats for my last chemo session. When I finished one treatment earlier than planned, she returned on her own to the chemo ward to hand out the champagne and treats to the other patients we’d gotten to know over the five months!
Losing your hair is a visible sign of cancer. Everyone knows the meaning of that scarf on your head. What I didn’t expect were the strangers who approached me, who hugged me and offered words of strength. Most were cancer survivors who just wanted to tell me to “hang in there”. Family, friends and even friends of my kids wrote my name on their shirts when they walked to raise money for cancer, and I felt honored and touched every time. I still remember the first time I did the local cancer walk after I was “all better.” I saw a woman walking with her bandana, and I finally understood why those strangers had approached me. I spoke to her, we held hands, and I told her to stay strong.
Last week, a local spa in Curacao planned a Breast Cancer Awareness event. As part of the event, survivors were gifted with a day of pampering, and I was one of the lucky people to receive this treat. When my good friend told me that she’d arranged this for me, I immediately felt guilty. I told her that I’d done nothing to deserve this. She needs a day of pampering more than me. She said, “Nonsense. You survived cancer.”
It goes without saying that I’d prefer not to have had cancer, but I am thankful for all it’s taught me. I’ve learned about compassion and strength and priorities. I’ve learned how much impact the actions of strangers can have, and it brought me closer to my family and friends (just this past week, my mom and I were reminiscing about the fun we had in Tampa during what should have been the worst time in my life). So to all my family, friends, and the strangers who helped me through cancer, thank you. There were more stories of kindness and support than I can ever mention here.
In the end, I can only hope to pay it forward...
For those of you still fighting, you are in my thoughts. Stay strong.