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.  

Making the Most of a Recurrence

When you’ve heard the word recurrence as often as I have over the past five years, pausing life for cancer is not going to happen.

In 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage 1B cervical cancer. I underwent pre-surgery chemotherapy to shrink the 7 cm tumor on my cervix, a radical hysterectomy and because one cancerous lymph node was found during surgery, I had additional chemo treatments and 28 rounds of external pelvic radiation.

Ten months later my cancer recurred. A second surgery was needed — a pelvic exenteration. This surgery removed my bladder, colon and caused me to no longer have a ‘functioning’ vagina or rectum.

In 2013, I then heard the word metastasize when my cancer spread to my liver.

You know what word phrase I would prefer to hear? No evidence of disease (NED) or cancer-free. However, there is now a determination that comes with my recurrence. I am determined to keep moving forward.

My life goals have changed drastically. I am no longer motivated to climb the corporate ladder or amass great wealth or travel the world. I now strive to keep my inner joy and to always be present. This sounds simple enough, but with a recurrence, even the easy stuff can be challenging.

But I asked myself, how do I want to fill my days? Do I want to fill them with fear and anxiety? Or would I be happier focusing on the things that make me smile? I choose to surround myself with good, loving people who help me smile.

I’ve been back in chemotherapy several times and I even spent over a year NED. But I’m no stranger to cancer and chemo side effects, both physical and emotional. Some days are easier than others, but I’m kind of addicted to the sunrises and sunsets I take in each day, and I want more.

I have also found my advocacy voice and sharing my cancer story has become part of my life. Being able to reach someone, helps put my life in perspective. Today is more important then yesterday or tomorrow.

Follow Carol’s adventures on her blog, Cancer Avenger.