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18.

18 years cancer free. I type those words and I feel so many emotions. I do not take lightly the magnitude of surviving 6,574 days beyond cancer.

Wow.

My eyes well with tears as I now say that aloud. I am grateful. I’m blessed. I’m lucky. I am honored. I am happy. I’m sad. Sad? I’m Angry. Angry? Yes, because there is a part of my heart that also aches for those that don’t get the opportunity to reach a milestone, such as this. It’s what’s commonly known as, “survivor guilt.” The guilt of “having made it.” But with cancer you’re always looking over your shoulder and are always just a cancer cell or more away from “what ifs.” I remember the enormous cloud of anxiety (and fear) that came with reaching one-year cancer free, and then five. Last year I had a scare. I didn’t know if I would still be cancer free for year number 18 but I am, and I am grateful. I’m also honored as I know that every single day, month and year matters. It’s an honor and a privilege to be 18 years cancer free.

I learned some time ago that I had to honor this time — not just this year, but every single day.  And I do that in various ways. First and foremost, I do that by the way that I live my life. I live my life as if tomorrow is not promised. I live my life by enjoying my imperfectly perfect life. I live my life by giving thanks for what I do have and try hard to not worry about what I do not. I wrote an entire book about it. If cancer taught me anything it is to be grateful for life and I seriously find joy in living my best life beyond cancer. Cancer does not hold me hostage anymore. 

I give back to the cancer community in many ways, but the biggest way is the nonprofit that I founded and lead, Cervivor. That work continues to inspire, empower and remind me that I am alive. It can be bittersweet, because while I honor this life beyond cancer, working in this space triggers past traumas of an emotionally and physically difficult time in my life. I’m also surrounded by women who are sick and who sometimes don’t survive this disease. That is probably the most painful part of this work. But, it has also become that catalyst of why I can’t abandon this work. Women still die of cervical cancer despite all the advancements that have been made. While we can prevent cancer in future generations we need more help for women who endure recurrent and metastatic cervical cancer today. I believe that we will make that happen. 

When I first became a patient advocate, I didn’t know that it would look like it currently does today. I didn’t set out to become a patient advocate. It was exactly the opposite. I wanted to forget cancer and pick up right where cancer had come in and halted my life. But the harder that I tried to do just that; the more difficult it was to bury it while trying to navigate my “new normal”. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reconcile how this thing had happened to me. How would I move forward with life. How do you live with the constant cloud of cancer hanging over you? I did decide to do something with “it” and “it” was to start sharing my story. I remember feeling that my story wasn’t as dire as some, and that compared to others it seemed that I had it “easier.” Why would anyone want to hear my story?  AND who would want to hear about cervical cancer and me talking about my “coochie” 🙂  But there was this feeling deep from within that I just had to do it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned just by doing something day by day and looking to others who could mentor me. Being a patient advocate isn’t a cookie cutter thing. There isn’t a one way fits all type of advocacy. Being a patient advocate is about being committed to a cause. It’s being vocal. My cause is to end cervical cancer. And with each year of survivorship that has become  even more personal than I could have ever imagined. I never thought that I would see myself here. But I am and I promise to make my survivorship count

My goal has always been to connect and mobilize as many cervical cancer patients and survivors; as possible. Over the last decade it has also been to get those women (and their networks) engaged in active advocacy. The past 18 years, I’ve met some incredibly dedicated women and more recently we’ve lost a few that not only hurts personally, but also comes at a great loss to the cervical cancer movement. 

That is what makes this cancerversary bittersweet. I want to yell from the rooftops that I AM 18 YEARS CANCER FREE (and I will), but I’m also sad to not be able to do the same with women like Jillian Scalfani, Lisa Moore, Brittaini Qadri, Lizzi Haas, Erica Frazier Stum and Laura Brennan. These losses hurt not only because of the loss of life, but because of the loss of champions for our cause. These women were giants. I miss them terribly. These women got it — in a big way. They were loud, vocal, passionate hadvocates. They understood the enormity of what we’re up against and the power of our collective voices to overcome it. I miss their willingness to be “all in.” I’ll continue to share their stories. Their voices will be heard.

This day will be about celebrating and a reminder that I am still here, but it is also a reminder at who is not. It’s bittersweet. But I’m focusing on the words of my friend, Dr. Sabrina Mikan, “Life is incredible! I appreciate each day I receive.” 

Amen.  

Tamika Felder is an 18-year cervical cancer survivor and award-winning women’s health advocate. She is the Chief Visionary at Cervivor – a nonprofit dedicated to cervical cancer advocacy and support. Named a “Cancer Rebel” by Newsweek in a 2017 cover story, Tamika is a highly sought-after speaker on cervical cancer advocacy, cancer prevention, HPV education, and living life with purpose after cancer. She is the author of “Seriously, What Are You Waiting For? 13 Actions To Ignite Your Life & Achieve The Ultimate Comeback.” Tamika currently serves on the steering committee of the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable. She’s also shared her story and experiences on Presidential Cancer Panels convened by the White House. An award-winning television producer, Tamika is currently filming a documentary about cervical cancer, the women living with it, and the vaccine to prevent it.  Her story of patient-to-advocate / survivor-to-Cervivor inspires and mentors not only patients and medical communities, but anyone who has struggled with obstacles in their life.

Choosing Better Over Bitter

I’ve learned in life that there are three types of choices: There are easy choices, there are difficult choices and there are choices that are made for you.

Sunday morning, July 26, 2015: He said, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t love you. You aren’t the woman I married, you have no passion… we are like roommates. CANCER CHANGED YOU.” He said a lot of other things too. And then he was gone.

That Sunday morning was the second time in my life I felt a choice was made for me and I had no say in it.  The previous time was the day I was diagnosed with cancer some 10 years earlier. The months leading up to that Sunday morning I had been to the hospital no fewer than 10 times, I had stayed for a total of 11 days, I had been to the ER probably 5 times, and I had a major surgery and more tests than I could count… I was so sick that Sunday morning, my doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, and my marriage just came to a screeching halt. That day and the week following I wanted to make what seemed like an easy choice, I wanted to die. I know that may sound morbid and even dramatic, but that seemed to be an easier choice than what laid before me.

Between another hospital stay (a month this time) and some devastating correspondence, I was pushed to my end. I was so low, so exhausted, and simply beat down. The night of my birthday, in late September, I had a life altering conversation with a dear friend who reminded me that I was a survivor. She reminded me that there were people who loved me; my family, friends, and colleagues and even though I felt a great deal of shame, deep down I had to know I had value and purpose. I am not going to sugar coat it, going through a divorce is horrible… divorce after 12 ½ years of marriage is even more horrible. Being told that a disease you didn’t choose was the reason for your spouse leaving is devastating, but I had been through this type of “horrible” a few times before. I could survive this too.

I can’t tell you the exact day, but later that Fall I made a conscious decision to not give up on my life and the hope of love. This was my difficult choice. I knew I had to unpack so many painful things that had existed in my life for years. There was trauma from going through cancer treatment, unhealthy behaviors from a toxic marriage, and even things from my childhood that I had never faced and they were all bubbling at the surface waiting to be let out.  The journey that was ahead was sure to be difficult, but I had to make a decision that I was worth it so that I could live part two of my life as I believe God had always intended. 

For that year, I dedicated myself to weekly therapy. I worked ferociously at weeding out the things that were holding me back, that scared me, and that were hindering me from being all I wanted to be. Believe me when I say that it was an emotional roller coaster, but it was a ride that I would take over and over again, to get to the place I am today.

About a year after that fateful Sunday, my life made a sharp right turn and what would happen over the next year could have never been planned. I know that a series of choices in my life led to me that place that Friday evening. I walked into a restaurant, butterflies in my stomach, and he stood there. He being, the man that would change my life. A couple months earlier I had chosen to dip my toe back into the dating world. Being divorced caused a lot of fear and shame for me, but I worked hard to face that head on and allow a healing process to work in me. 

The healing process after my divorce was much like healing after cancer treatment. The first few months I was emotionally and physically spent. It was hard to do anything and a level of depression existed so much that I just got used to it. Then about six months into it I began to feel like the fog was lifting and I could regain some footing. There were some noticeable side effects and I realized I needed more healing. I continued to trudge on, added some exercise into my routine and started to take care of myself spiritually, emotionally, and physically. About a year into it, I looked back and was amazed at how far I’d come. 

Whether it be from cancer, from grief, or from the end of a relationship, there is no quick fix for healing. That being said, you do have a choice in how it is to happen. I made a choice amidst some pretty devastating circumstances, to live again. I made the choice to believe in healing, to believe that I was lovable, and that I could make part two of my life so much better than part one. 

Today I am married to the man that was standing in the restaurant waiting for me. I continue to seek therapy as I need it, and I continue to take care of myself spiritually, physically and emotionally. I know not everyone’s circumstances are the same as mine, but what I do know is that making the choice to do the hard work of healing allows for so much beauty to come after the tragedy. Following the deep, dark moments of my life that entered that Sunday morning, I can say with satisfaction, I won. I chose to be better, not bitter.

Kristin is a 44 year old elementary school teacher living in San Diego, California. She is a native San Diegan who loves all things sports, hiking, and animals. She loves living life with her husband Hugh, her two stepdaughters, three grand babies and her three dogs. Kristin has been cancer free since December 2005 and she is a 2015 Cervivor School graduate.