A sense of deep gratitude is something that I have carried with me since finishing treatment for cervical cancer. Especially during those first phases of recovery when you feel like you’re stepping out of the fog and back into the world. It was overwhelming to go outside and have my lungs fill with fresh air, feel sun on my skin, and to finally have an ounce of energy with which to enjoy it. I would walk my dog every day and take it all in with my (cautious) sense of victory over cancer. No phone to distract me, just the awe of what once felt so mundane.
Like so many of my Cervivor sisters, I had a complete shift in my mindset after going through cancer. There’s a level of gratitude attained after being isolated and having your mortality hanging over you like a dark cloud every single minute.
The sick feeling is so strong that it’s hard to imagine ever being able to feel better. I remember spending those hard days thinking about what I would do once it was all over. I mainly daydreamed about family gatherings with yummy meals, or spending time out in nature. The shift in mindset also pertained to relationships. I was alive, and ready to live my best life. That meant deciding what, and who, was worth my time and effort. It meant ditching behaviors that didn’t serve my purpose, and creating boundaries where needed to stay true to what was important to me.
In this uncertain time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world is getting a taste of what it’s like to be threatened by their environment, stuck with their worries and no sense of control over any of it. I see friends beginning to talk about what they’ll do after this is over, and what I see is so similar to my own experience. People aren’t talking about going on a lavish vacation; they just want to get their nails done. Or hug a neighbor. See a movie in the theater. Catch up with friends in person. Not have to disinfect groceries. Normal, everyday activities that were previously taken for granted are now desperate aspirations. That is what it feels like all the time for those fighting cancer, but at an even more basic level. Personally, I dreamed to be able to walk four feet to the bathroom without breaking a sweat. Not having to be bathed by my partner while holding the wall for support. Feeling fresh air on my face and having real light shine down on me after recovering indoors for so long. Walking up a flight of steps all by myself. Holding down food. I learned that being mad about my situation didn’t make it go away. There was no workaround. The only way out was through.
Having been faced with all that and making it through to the other side, I was going to start living my life unapologetically and with a renewed sense of appreciation for what matters at the core. When you can no longer do such simple functions, you learn what matters in life, and what really doesn’t— like the ten extra pounds gained from coping with a very scary time.
My hope is that when the pandemic is over and everyone can come out of their homes and go back to work, that a prevailing sense of gratitude will make the world a bit softer of a place to be, for the short time that we’re here to enjoy it. I hope people will see that the time to live your life is now. I hope when regular life resumes, and it will be that ever present “new normal” us cancer survivors so often speak of, that people don’t forget what it was like to have the rug yanked from under them by circumstances beyond their control. Hard times make us strong and perspective, makes us compassionate. I am grateful that we still have the wonder of the outdoors to soothe our souls, Zoom to see our friends, and for the people working so hard to keep us safe and healthy.
Mary Baker is a three year survivor of stage 3B cervical cancer. She is an advocate for women’s health, a mom of two and proud Cervivor Ambassador and Cervivor School graduate.