Survivorship Badge of Honor

Every time I say the phrase “I’m a cancer survivor,” I feel the weight of the whole experience. I feel the pain, the relief, the pride, the anger, the courage, the happiness, and the uncertainty. Just the other day I was giving blood (first time back since my treatment wrapped) and the lovely folks at the American Red Cross were having a tough time finding a good vein. “I’m a cancer survivor, my veins have been through a lot,” I explained. Translation: I’ve been through a lot.

To me, being a cancer survivor means a myriad of things and its meaning has evolved over time for me. At first, it meant that I had been through something that not many others have. It was like going off to battle, and coming back with a limp and terrible memories. I saw things very few have, I felt things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and I lived through a time of such intense anxiety it was almost paralyzing. I was confronted with my own mortality in a tangible way, and this set me apart from most people in my life.

As you can imagine, this is quite a lot to process. So when I first found out my cancer was gone, I immediately started seeing a therapist to help cope with the stress of the previous year. Because to me, the pain of the whole ordeal almost felt almost more intense after treatment had wrapped. It all came crashing down on me. I felt alone and isolated. I read in a cancer Survivorship book that surviving cancer is like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean with all of your friends and family on shore waiving for you to come in, but you’re unable. That’s exactly what it was to me. We celebrated me becoming a cancer survivor, but my relationship with it was complicated.

One of the challenges with becoming a survivor initially was processing the fact that I had survived when others had not. In fact, the day of my “clean scan party” I found out a woman I had been in treatment with had passed away. She left behind two children and a wonderful husband I had gotten to know in the waiting room of treatment. I remember seeing the information on Facebook earlier in the day and I almost wanted to cancel the party. I felt terrible and guilty for celebrating that I had survived, when she had not. I survived because my body responded to the treatment; I didn’t fight harder than she did. She fought even harder. I just got lucky. This didn’t sit well with me, and motivated me to ensure my cancer Survivorship was put to good use.

Once I had processed all of the complicated feelings I had with being a cancer survivor, I began to heal and come out of the shadows that the disease had cast on my life and my loved ones. I started to view myself as a warrior. A humble one, but a warrior nonetheless. I began to wear my Survivorship like a badge of honor and the most important step for me was starting to reach out to anyone I knew that was battling to offer my support. A very close family friend and a coworker were both diagnosed with breast cancer within a short time and my husband and I offered our support to help get them through.

Now, being a survivor comes with a responsibility to take care of others battling, and to help advance the conversation and medicine so fewer and fewer people have to go through it. It means getting involved with organizations like Cervivor that help women, and to eradicate the stigma of cervical cancer. It means keeping things in perspective, and to have empathy for people around you. Because really, you never know what people are going through on a daily basis. It means not taking life for granted, and for celebrating every birthday like it’s a huge milestone. Gray hairs? Bring them on! I cherish the idea of getting older.

Being a cancer survivor is scary and lonely, but it can be a powerful tool used to help people. My pain has turned into my power and this warrior is ready for anything. It’s Motivation Monday and I am #CervivorStrong!

Read Kate’s Cervivor story here.

Faith Over Fear

Today marks 17 years since I heard those words, “You have cancer“.  It has taken a lot for me to not be held hostage by cancer. You spend so much time fighting to survive and then the rest hoping, wishing and praying that it won’t come back. It’s like constantly living on the edge of a nonstop roller coaster. I got off of the roller coaster a few years ago and have been living my life beyond my cancer. I know that is not easy, but it is something that I truly strive for in my life. But, recently, I was taken right back to that moment in time when I was a scared 25-year-old.

Pre Op before the waterworks.

Two weeks ago I went for my annual well woman’s visit. You know, the one I constantly talk about because I’m a cervical cancer survivor. I honestly probably would have taken longer to make the appointment, but there was this issue with blood and it made me nervous. Anytime there is blood, is a reason to be seen. Especially, given my history and that my father died of colon cancer. So, I called and made an appointment and asked for their first available. My primary care physician recently retired and I also needed a new OB/GYN. So there was the added stress of not having a prior relationship. Oh, the excuses we will make… But this is not what I had in mind. I didn’t even do any research. I just needed to see someone. I was lucky that they saw me pretty quickly.  During my exam, with my feet in the stirrups; the Nurse Practitioner saw something. She called for a physician to come and take another look. As if I wasn’t anxious enough. There was a nodule of some sort and even though they didn’t think that it was cancerous, they needed to know for sure — given my history of course. So, I needed a biopsy. Nodule. Biopsy. Suspicious. All words that reminded me of when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. I’d be lying if I said, “I was fine and took the news like a champ”. In that moment, I was terrified that the cancer had returned. In my head, “to finish what it had started“. I found myself overcome with fear and my faith nowhere in sight. This is a very human response. PTSD. It is cancer trauma. I haven’t been put under since my diagnosis and that triggered so many emotions for me. I wasn’t prepared for that. Let alone the emotions that ran through me as I was wheeled in the operating room. I was scared.

Cancer is scary. So much so that my blood pressure was through the roof. Just the thought of having to deal with cancer again was enough to have me in the fetal position. But just as I had done 17 years prior, I reminded myself that I wasn’t done yet. That if it were cancer, that I would fight to rid it again with everything that I had. Because I am not built to quit. Thank you cancer scare for that reminder.

So here I am less than a week post-op. My coochie feels like 2 bees are taking turns stinging it. But it could be worse. 17 years ago it felt like a hammer.  The waiting sucks. I have no patience at all, and I want to know my pathology reports now. But I have to wait. So, I’m healing and slowly easing back into what I do best. Living my best life beyond cancer.

My sister recently reminded me, “Faith Over Fear“.  When I find myself feeling overwhelmed I remind myself of that. I don’t want to let cancer, or even the possiblity of it control me. Here’s to celebrating 17 years cancer free and 17 more. FU cancer!

Also, let this serve as your reminder to schedule your well woman exam, vaccinate those under 26 (especially 11 & 12 year olds). Check your boobies, booty and skin too. Check everything. You’re welcome! 🙂

Tamika Felder is  is the Chief Visionary at Cervivor. Newsweek Magazine featured her on the cover and named her a “Cancer Rebel”. Tamika is a highly sought-after speaker and is the author of Seriously, What Are You Waiting For? 13 Actions To Ignite Your Life & Achieve The Ultimate Comeback.  Tamika’s inspiring story has been featured in numerous media outlets around the globe. Tamika has served as a community representative for the President’s Cancer Panel (2003), and is a former board member of the Ulman Cancer Foundation for Young Adults. She served as a patient advocate member of the Gynecological Oncology Group and the National Cancer Institute’s Gynecologic Cancer Steering Committee- Cervical Task Force. She is also a former member of the District of Columbia’s Cancer Plan’s Gynecological Cancer Committee and the Maryland Cancer Plan’s Cervical Cancer Committee. Tamika currently serves on the board of the Global Coalition Against Cervical Cancer, the advisory council for the Alliance for Fertility Preservation, and as an expert panel member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Stratified Cervical Cancer Primary Prevention Guideline Panel. She was recently appointed to the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable’s Steering Committee. Tamika is making her survivorship count.