Hard Words To Hear, Even Harder To Accept


“You are one of the lucky ones.”

Those words are hard to hear and probably even harder to accept. If you’re anything like me (and I bet you are), you’re ready to give me a piece of your mind, click off this blog, or even throw something at this screen.

You certainly don’t feel like the ‘lucky one’. Sometimes you can’t even remember the girl or woman you were before those dreaded words “You have cancer”. You struggle with pain, fear, doubt, insecurity, maybe even infertility and a whole host of other things. I bet you’re thinking, “LUCKY? HA, if this is luck, you can keep it!” 

The truth is all those feeling are normal, natural, and hard to move beyond. They can paralyze us, stealing the joy from our lives and our relationships. Think about it for a minute.

How do I know what you might be thinking? Because I am one of you: A ‘lucky’ one! I too am a survivor. 

Michelle Whitlock coupleI was first diagnosed with cervical cancer a month before my 27th birthday. I wasn’t married, I had no children, and I’d only been dating my boyfriend for 6 months. I had never missed an annual Pap since the age of 16; despite this, I was told I had cancer and a radical hysterectomy was needed to save my life.

The crazy part was my pap was normal; it never indicated cancer. It was the HPV test that led to the discovery of my tumor inside the cervical canal. I elected to have a radical trachelectomy instead. It has good results but unfortunately not for me.

Two short years later, just days after my boyfriend had proposed, my cancer returned. I was stunned. I immediately started treatment to preserve my eggs and create embryos. A week later, I got married barefoot on the beach in Jamaica, and ten days later, I checked into the hospital for a radical hysterectomy followed by both chemo and radiation.

Cancer stole my fertility and what should have been a happy newlywed year. It left me with a new, skewed reality, and a host of new challenges: menopause, radiation colitis, sexual dysfunction, and infertility. I didn’t have any idea how to pick up the pieces.

Today, it’s been 14 years since that first diagnosis and 11 years since my dreaded recurrence. So much of my life has been changed and altered because of the cancer.

However, I can finally see I am here breathing and so are you; that makes us the ‘lucky’ ones. We survived; many of our sisters didn’t. They lost their lives to this awful disease.

If someone had told me this early, I might have laughed in their face; I was caught up in my own experience. It was hard to see how my cancer affected anyone other than me. In the years since then, I have had the pleasure to know many woman just like me. Women with bright futures – some with my exact diagnosis – who battled fiercely but in the end, lost the war.

I have met families in agony, desperately trying to make sense of the death of their daughter, wife, sister, mother, and friend. I often find myself thinking “Why me? Why did I survive when they didn’t?” Neither you nor I will ever know the answer to that question.

In the early days after my diagnosis and treatment, I gave power to the pain, fear, doubt, and questions. I allowed them to consume me and the more they did, the stronger they grew.

Michelle Whitlock FamilyHowever, the loss of these beautiful women forced me to see the reality of my situation: I still had a choice to live again. I could honor myself and my fallen sisters by living well in spite of all that cancer took. I could search for the silver lining and carve out a new life.

I want this same choice for you. I want you to live not only for yourself and your family, but for every woman who didn’t make it. Because I am sure they would trade places with any of us today.

Now we each have a difficult choice to make: Will you thrive? Will you piece together what looks like rubble and build a new, better version of you? I know if I can do it, you can do it too!

Living doesn’t mean denying your pain, fears, or doubts. Those feelings are real and need to be acknowledged, but not allowed to take over our lives. You might be thinking “Right, easier said than done” or “But you don’t understand, I have XYZ.” It’s a frame of mind. It is work. It is tough. And it is doable.

Here are a few tips:

  • Build a network of support. It can be both people who have had cancer and those who haven’t. The more the merrier! Give them permission to speak frankly with you and just listen. Sometimes others can be more objective and help calm our fears. Spread your sharing around rather than relying on just one person. It can be emotionally taxing on even our most loved ones so talk to multiple people.
  • Keep a journal or written record of your aches and pains and share with your medical professionals. It’s so easy for us to obsess and get caught in a cycle of depression, so let them help you decide if it’s something to worry about. As strange as it might sound, try to tell yourself, “I’m grateful to still be here to feel anything!” Then picture one thing you’re grateful for: a loved one, a special experience, the air you’re breathing. Hold on to that image and use it as power to calm the fear and doubt.
  • Try to look at the situation from someone else’s view point. This helped me so much with my marriage, and allowed me to stop pushing my partner away and feeling sorry for myself. I realized his life had changed too. For example, my body hurt and my hormones were so messed up that I didn’t want him to touch me. On the other hand, his hormones didn’t change; he was a totally normal 26 and then 29 year old man with a natural raging desire to have sex. It wasn’t his fault I had cancer or that I was in pain and riddled with fear. When I stopped to think about how difficult it must have been for him, I understood, whether rational or not, that he felt rejected, alone, and undesirable. Physical contact is a natural, normal part of feeling loved. He wasn’t a villain for wanting me or my attention.
  • Exercise regularly. This can be anything from walking to doing yoga, weight training, swimming, biking, etc. Better yet, find a partner and exercise together. Exercise is therapeutic for our bodies as well as our minds, and the act of exercise releases natural endorphins, your body’s natural pain fighters.
  • Fix yourself up. I have always believed we are how we look. You don’t have to look like a super model, but you do need to feel good about yourself. Get out of bed or off the couch. Devote a little time to your outwardly appearance. This will mean different things for each of us: putting on make-up, fixing your hair, wearing nice clothes instead of sweats, etc. You know the saying, “Fake it till you make it!” Every time you walk in front of the mirror I want you to see your own beauty and self-worth; not a sad, depressed version of yourself.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself. Cancer and its aftermath can be pretty messy. In those early days, I found myself wanting to cry about so much of it. That weighed on me until I decided I didn’t care what other people thought; by gosh, I had just survived a war with cancer. If the radiation made me poop my pants in public, well then it did. I wasn’t going to hide in shame or embarrassment. Let’s face it – everyone laughs at poop. Now as far as I see it, that’s one more funny story to tell.

Whether you feel like it today or not, you and I are the ‘lucky’ ones. We both have a second or third chance at life. My life hasn’t played out the way I thought it would but it’s much better.

Cancer changed the course of my life, and because of it I have:

  • A marriage that will survive ‘in sickness and health’. It’s been tried and tested!
  • My daughter Riley Grier. She was created from a very specific egg and specific sperm; any other egg or sperm combination, even from my husband and I, would have resulted in a different child. I could not imagine my world without her
  • My adopted children, Brody & Savvy Rose. Cancer gave me an appreciation for life and taught me how precious each child is. So when my biological great-nephew and great-niece were taken into foster care, I knew my husband and I needed to step up and care for them, which eventually led to their adoption.
  • Some of my closest friends came to me through my cancer experience and my dedication to advocacy. Without having walked this path I may never have known them.

I challenge you to figure out how to LIVE in spite of cancer, THRIVE because you can, and PAY IT FORWARD to someone else in need. Together our voices are louder, more powerful, and capable of reaching the mountain tops. We are the lucky ones.

 

By Michelle Whitlock, author of ‘How I Lost My Uterus and Found My Voice’

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