Patient Blogs | Ovarian Cancer
Cancer – The Bully. The Villain. The Teacher?
photo of birthday cake

Cancer is a horrible monster. It took my own body and convinced it to turn against me. In some ways, it felt like the biggest betrayal. I could easily say that nothing but fear, long-term side effects, and a financial burden came out of the whole ordeal. But that wouldn’t be true at all.

When I turned 40 years old (3 months before I was diagnosed), I was like many women nearing middle age, worried about getting older. I would see an elderly woman with her gray hair, wrinkles, and soft body, and I’d grimace. “Ugh. I’m going to be like that someday.” Then I’d whiten my teeth, get my hair dyed, and go for a run with my dog. Anything to stop the aging process that was creeping up on me.

“It’s cancer.” Those words changed everything.

One of the first things that came to my mind was, "Why am I not older?" If I was going to get cancer, die of cancer, I wanted to be in my 90s, not just turned 40. I had three young children to raise, a writing career that was just getting off the ground, and a husband who didn’t know where to find anything in the house. I couldn’t die. “Not now!”

Still numb with diagnosis-shock and crumbling under fear, I was thrown into battle because the enemy had infiltrated and was quietly taking over my body. The doctors pulled out the “big guns” and helped me sign up for a clinical trial along with the normal toxic treatment. So I was in treatment for 15 months. Fifteen loooonnnngg months. Over a year of pain, discomfort, and fear. And then years of recovery.

How many of you have said, “I had to learn it the hard way”? The biggest lessons in our lives usually come from experiencing something traumatic.

Don’t speed on icy roads.

Take small bites.

If something smells off, don’t eat it.

Don’t drink the whole barrel of Jungle Juice at a fraternity party.

Fighting cancer has been the most traumatic experience of my life, and I certainly couldn’t get through it without learning some hefty things.

Paradigm Shift

My husband took me out for brunch about a month into my treatment. In the middle of the dining room, there was a table of elderly women. They were nicely dressed, each with a different shade of gray to their hair. Wrinkles and smiles abounded as they caught up on each other’s lives. Their long lives.

I want to be like them. The thought came straight from my heart, straight from the fear that I wouldn’t make it even to age 45. From that moment on, I no longer grimace when I see an elderly woman. I smile and make a wish that I will someday be just like her.

When I turned 50, I celebrated with laughter and dancing and gratitude. What a difference from when I turned 40.

Butterfly Effect

You can’t tell me that a caterpillar doesn’t feel some pain while it transforms into a butterfly. Wrapped in warm blankets while cancer-killing poison was being dripped into my veins, I felt a bit like a cocooned caterpillar. Although at the end of the whole treatment plan, I certainly didn’t have gorgeous wings and the ability to fly. But taking a real look inside, I felt “prettier” as a human being. I’d learned to be more patient with myself and those around me. I learned to put people first over getting things done (something I still struggle with since I’m very productivity driven and naturally impatient). All of that made me a much kinder, more human person. I’m trying hard to remind myself about this lesson now that my normal crazy schedule has returned.

Just Too Many Lessons

Someday I hope to write a book about all the things I learned from cancer. I couldn’t possibly write them all here in a single post. So I’m going to list my top 12.

  1. Doing anything (swallowing, walking, pooping, breathing ...) without pain is fabulous.
  2. Life is too short to do things I really don’t like (bye, bye putt-putt golf and lima beans).
  3. Life is too short NOT to do the things I really want to do (hello Scotland and hosting a Teal Tea).
  4. Slow down enough to notice the flowers and birds. Sip out of china teacups, because you can’t rush around with one in your hand. Then breathe and be grateful for the day.
  5. Don’t watch the news 24/7. Everyone needs a break from harsh reality, especially when you’re facing your own battle.
  6. Ask for help. Life is not meant to be done alone, and when others feel helpless in the face of your diagnosis, giving them something to do helps them too.
  7. Focus on grateful not jealousy. In a world of social media, we often just see the pretty pictures of people’s lives. I used to walk by other people’s houses, with their serene landscaping and bright flowers, and envy them. But we don’t know what’s going on behind the walls, what battles people are facing. Everyone is facing a battle in some way at some time. Jealousy is just a dark emotion that eats away at you when you’re already fighting to keep yourself intact.
  8. Dangly earrings look fabulous on someone who’s bald. Enjoy the most audacious styles when you’re in treatment. People will still say “You look wonderful!” no matter how circus-like you look.
  9. Exercise is a reward, not a punishment. Being able to walk around the block or stretch in a yoga pose or have the strength to lift your child is wonderful. Every time I exercise now, I’m thankful for the body I have, even with its many imperfections.
  10. Kids know more than we think they do. Trying to hide things from them can actually make them worry more.
  11. I must be my own advocate. I love my doctors and nurses, and I know they like me because I’m delightful – LOL! But I’m one of thousands of patients they see during my years with them. And health professionals aren’t mind readers. I must speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Yeah, I know. Everything doesn’t feel “right” when you’re in treatment, but do your best to point out anything that changes. Doctors and nurses need all the information they can get to keep you in the game.
  12. Celebrate every birthday with gusto! Getting older is the goal!

Life is a struggle, especially when you’re fighting cancer. But struggles can also teach us many lessons. Don’t miss them.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: SolStock / E+ via Getty Images

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Heather McCollum

Heather McCollum

Diagnosed since 2011

Heather McCollum is a 10-year survivor of ovarian cancer living near Raleigh, NC. When she isn't helping to educate women about this disease, she's busy raising her three kids, taking care of her rescued animals, and writing Scottish historical romance novels. She loves dragonflies, hot chai tea lattes, and supporting other cancer warriors as they maneuver through their own journeys.

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