Being a full-fledged Cervivor

I pulled into the parking lot of the Cancer Support Center in Indianapolis one icy January morning, with butterflies in my stomach. My social anxiety was on full-blown high alert as I sat in the car, staring at the building where other cervical cancer survivors were gathering for a Cervivor School event. I took deep breaths. I counted. I wished it wasn’t too early for a stiff drink. But I gathered my courage and walked in. And I haven’t looked back since.

After my whirlwind bout with cervical cancer in 2014, life went back to normal… for everyone else. I tried to find that normal that everyone else so easily slipped back into, but it eluded me. I pushed cancer, and the baggage that came with it, to the back of my mind. I left the online cancer groups that supported me during my diagnosis. I let my cancer blog grow cold and stopped giving updates. I tried to ignore the fears of recurrence that lurked beneath the surface. I tried to hide my tears as I lie awake at night, thinking of the children I so desperately wanted but could no longer carry. I smiled and stayed busy, searching for a normal that doesn’t exist after a cancer diagnosis.

Then one day, with my 2-year cancerversary quickly approaching, I received a Facebook message from Erica, a fellow cervical cancer survivor. She friended me and invited me to an upcoming Cervivor School in Indianapolis. I was hesitant, but intrigued by the thought of meeting other survivors face to face. I decided to give it a try, reassuring myself that Indianapolis was only a few hours from home and I could easily leave if I felt uncomfortable there.

That first Cervivor School I attended was a small, intimate gathering of cervical cancer survivors and caregivers. The other women shared their stories and, for the first time, I shared pieces of mine. Until that day, I hadn’t thought much about my cancer story and how it is intrinsically woven into the fabric of my life. I had spent so much time trying to ignore it, that I was overwhelmed with relief when I was able to finally talk about my experiences. I saw my story reflected in the eyes of the other women who had walked the same path as I. We laughed. We cried. We learned about the medical side of cervical cancer and HPV, and about effective advocacy. I asked questions, and got answers. I let my guard down, and found a sisterhood that filled a hole in my heart I didn’t even know existed. For the first time, I didn’t feel quite so alone. 

I went on to attend another Cervivor School in Charleston, SC and helped plan and attended one in Louisville, KY. I’m so grateful to have had these opportunities and look forward to attending the next school in Florida in June. I learn new things at every Cervivor School and enjoy spending time with other women who truly “get it”. It has not only helped me learn the skills and strategies I need to be an effective advocate for the eradication of cervical cancer, it has also helped me heal. I recognize the personal growth I’ve experienced over the past year and a half, from struggling to accept my identity as a cancer survivor to being a full-fledged Cervivor.

Read Jessica’s Cervivor story here: http://cervivor.org/stories/jessica/

Sweet 16

It’s my cancerversary. My “Sweet 16th” to be exact. I remember my own 16th birthday. Sixteen is the birthday and party every young girl looks forward to. I remember mine and just how wonderful it was. It was in my parent’s backyard and it was a big cookout and my first official co-ed birthday party. It was a big deal! I remember the decor — pink and purple everything. There is a VHS tape somewhere with all of its epicness.

So much has changed in my life since 1991. It seems like a lifetime ago. In between all of the wonderful and amazing things, I moved away from my home state, lost both of my parents, survived cancer at 25. and launched a movement to get women talking about cervical cancer.

This morning when I woke up, I gave thanks for still being here. I know it is a blessing. There are so many people who are not lucky enough to still be here or who are fighting for just another day. I don’t take these sixteen years lightly. Whether cancer-related or not, tomorrow is not promised. That’s the very reason I live my life with no regrets and on my own terms.

Life is meant to be lived. Today I’ll be adding to my “wishes, hopes & dreams” list. And thinking about how I will make it all happen. I’m a visual person and I like to look at my list and map out a plan. If there is one thing cancer taught me it’s that the perfect time is now. I don’t do a big five-year plan. My plans are all “now”. It’s okay if some of them don’t happen until five years or more. What’s important is that I know what they are and I have a plan to cross them off of my list. And it’s a bold list!

Photo: Captured Moments by Kisha

I’m happy. When I think back to 2001, sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing those words, “You have cancer,” I never thought I would feel this alive and happy. Cancer comes into your life and consumes every single aspect of your world. At times, even when you physically feel good, the mental anguish of a cancer diagnosis can feel overwhelming and inescapable. It’s a feeling of suffocation, like you will never be able to catch your breath. It’s a feeling that others who haven’t experienced cancer, just don’t understand. They don’t get why it takes so long to bounce back. Even now, it’s still hard to put into words. But, here I am 16 years later, cancer free and happy. I don’t need a big fancy party (but I’m always up for one!); today for me is about knowing I am alive. I used to think these extra years were bonus years, on borrowed time. I realized about three years ago that I had it all wrong. It’s not borrowed time. It’s my time to live my life, and that is exactly what I am doing. Life is sweet. Happy 16 to me!

Tamika Felder is the Founder and Chief Visionary at Cervivor. She is currently raising funds to bring a South African Cervivor to Cervivor School. You can donate here.