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/

Cancer Broke My Cup

Sometimes I still can’t believe that I even have had cervical cancer, much less still dealing with the fallout from it-complications from surgery, side effects of radiation. I intellectually know that it happened, but there are moments where I look at myself and my life and go, “Wait…what?” Sometimes I actually look at and feel my radiation tattoos before getting in the shower. Yeah, I know that is weird, but there are times I need to connect with it — I need to stare at my markings, touch my port, my scars- to physically say, okay this happened and to remember just how far I have come. To have a slight even if for 20 seconds-mini celebration that I am here-that I have endured.

See, I believe we all have a choice when it comes to how we are going to look at our cancer, much how we all have choices in how we view anything in life. Are we going to be the cup half full girl? OR are we going to be the cup half empty girl? Before cancer-the answer was easy for me. I definitely was a silver linings person, taking lemons and making lemonade. I have had laugh lines since I was 10 and have always been able to find something to smile about. But enter a cancer diagnosis..enter in chemotherapy and radiation…enter in internal radiation…enter in infertility…enter in surgery…enter in (fill in the blank).Suddenly, being the cup half full chick was not as easy. I had faced some really tough things before, but never was my life on the line. Never had I been told, “You can either do treatment or live for about 3 more years.” Of course, I had thought about life after death, but NEVER had I really truly sat with it as a possibility. And what would treatment look like for me? Could I even do it? I remember sitting there with my oncologist when she was explaining to me where the cancer was, giving me my stage. She started explaining the action plan and what was going to happen to my body. Time stood still as I looked at her mouth moving. Nothing was really the same after.

Now back to that choice. I had to consciously ask myself, “How are you going to approach this?” I was scared of all of the unknowns. I had never even been in the hospital! Was I going to STILL be the cup half full girl? I remember coming home alone that day and crying one of those big cries — where you just lay and cry, and cry, and cry. The kind of cry where you get up and look at yourself in the mirror and your face is puffy and you have a sinus headache. That’s where I was. Half full? I was afraid and devastated. How could I even be a half full girl? I felt like someone had just taken my cup and shattered it on the floor. My cup was broken. Dreams were stolen. I was afraid. Cancer had come in my life like a thief.

Yet. I still had this choice to make. Cancer had broken my cup, but I was still here. Life would never ever be the same, but there was a plan forward. It was a hopeful plan-not without risks and not without pain and loss, but there was a plan.

There is a Japanese art form, in pottery called “kintsugi.” It is a process that embraces damage-where the broken vessels are not discarded, but where broken pieces are mended. The artist takes the ceramic pieces and mends them with a lacquer dust of gold, silver, or platinum. The flaws of the piece are actually highlighted and not hidden at all, often resulting in a piece that is far more beautiful than the original plan. The art form ties in the Japanese philosophy of “wabi-sabi” that embraces the flawed and imperfect, that actually emphasizes rather than hides the broken pieces.

So as I looked at the pieces of my broken cup-this vessel I had plans for, this vessel that was not operating on the original plan; I chose to start picking up the pieces. The cup does not look anything like it did before, but just like in wabi-sabi, the more I embrace instead of hide, the more beautiful it becomes. I have to constantly remind myself of these truths. Oh how I wish, it could be where I just pick it up mend it and move on. For those of us who have faced cancer-we know that it’
truly never “over.” I feel like mending my cup is a daily choice. I find myself even now, while being declared “cancer free” in October, still very much dealing with complications from a life-saving surgery-complications that will more than likely be part of my life in some way from now on. In addition to the reality of “scan-life” and other life altering side effects from treatment. So the question constantly remains for me, for us: Your cup may be broken like mine-will you leave it shattered or will you begin to piece it back together with gold and platinum, turning your brokenness into purpose and beauty? The choice is yours.

We need to talk. We need to have conversations about cervical cancer and prevention. Let my simple t-shirt design, help you begin that conversation AND help me pay both past and current medical expenses related to cervical cancer.

 Unfortunately, I am in need of another surgery due to post radiation side effects, from a life-saving hysterectomy. This surgery will repair significant damage that has been done to my bladder and will require a 6-8 week recovery. Just as with the past leaves I have I had to take, I will not be getting paid during this period. Donations through my t-shirt campaign can significantly help with expenses and you’ll look super cool! There are hoodies and t-shirts for guys and girls! https://www.bonfire.com/start-the-conversation/