A cancer diagnosis, like any life changing trauma, will immediately enroll you into an extreme and unique self-development course. When your mortality, your future and everything you know about you changes- strap yourself in, buckle-up, and hold on tight. Life will never be the same again.
But for many cancer patients including myself- it isn’t all bad news! In fact, many patients describe finding valuable gifts and life lessons through the unknown, illness, tears, pain, fear and uncertainty. It is now over two years since my cancer diagnosis and I am immersed in a number of amazing cancer communities. A common theme that many cancer patients report is the emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs.
There are good days, OK days, bad days, and really really [non-stop ugly cry] bad days. The days can easily turn into weeks – and even months. New symptoms, relentless symptoms, unfavorable test results, slight upticks in tumor markers or a ‘spot’ on the CT scan will drain your already depleted emotional bucket. And that’s without any of the ‘usual’ life ups and downs.
But what about the benefits and growth that people find through their cancer? After I received my diagnosis I began googling “positive cancer stories”. At the time I didn’t know the stage of my cancer. I only knew that I was about to have major bowel surgery and it would be a fortnight until I knew my prognosis. In that moment I decided that I was going to be OK – because I had to be. I had an 18mo and 3yo who needed their mumma. I needed hope.
There was no shortage of positive and miraculous stories of survival on the internet. However, I couldn’t find stories that I could relate to. None of the stories seemed to be ‘about people like me’- young working mum, bowel cancer, positive experience with cancer recovery.
Sharing the gifts and lessons of cancer
So! I have set about collating a list of helpful snippets of inspiration from real women with cancer. I reached out to my amazingly supportive and courageous cancer communities, to collate some absolutely beautiful gems of knowledge and insight. Whether you are a cancer patient, carer – or an interested reader (thank-you) I hope that you find these pearls of wisdom thought provoking and a reminder that we are never alone in our journey of life.
(All comments shared in their original form with permission. Thank-you to the beautiful souls who generously contributed).
“The gift of my cancer was building more meaningful connections with my loved ones. I was always close to my mum, but her strength and resilience kept my spirits up. She stopped working for a year to help me raise my son. I would have been lost without her, and my close girlfriends. I was always a happy, positive person, but having cancer really does put things into perspective. The things and people we put our energy into really is so important. I was told by a cancer nurse, never, ever give up hope. New treatments are developed all the time, something surprising may come along and be just what you need.” K – Breast Cancer at aged 35, as a mum of a 5 month old.
“I have found having cancer similar to pregnancy. Everyone wants to give you advice on what to do and how to handle it. It’s important to remember that each person’s cancer journey is individual to them . Listen to the advice given and take what means the most to you and forget the rest. My positive is surviving in so many different ways. I am still fighting and will be for the rest of my life. Having this journey to look back on and see how far I have come is a gift”. Anonymous- DLBCL, stage 3, Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Mum of a 2yo.
“I wish I had known that so many women under 50 (under the recommended mammogram age) are affected by breast cancer, then I may have gone for a mammogram earlier. No-one is cancer risk free. It was not my fault that I developed cancer. Cancer is not always the end of your world and many people carry on with daily life (even with active cancer). I remember sitting in my hospital bed after surgery feeling like the only person in the world in this awful situation, when my nurse casually drops that she is currently undergoing treatment for stage IV breast cancer. Woah! that made me re-think my perspective and approach A LOT. I saw humility, stoicism, perseverance and acceptance in her demeanor……
I have had experienced many positives from my cancer. Good friends and supportive individuals come out of the woodwork. My husband loves me more than I imagined. I dug deep and found determination and focus to achieve goals that are important to me, just in case my life ends up being shortened. I connected with other women with breast cancer. I became mentally stronger and learned to put in better boundaries to stop others from overusing my innate helpfulness”. AJ- Stage III Breast Cancer at aged 42. Woman. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Aunt. Friend.
“Something that I’ve come to appreciate is that treatment weeks gave my husband and kids extra time to spend together. I can also now appreciate that, in hindsight I was disappointed about plans not rolling out in the way I imagined over the last decade. But that actually set us up to survive the chemo experience relatively intact – with amazingly resilient kids and a survivable financial situation.” AB- Bowel Cancer at aged 36. Mum to a 12, 9, 5 yo.
“The positive from my cancer is that it uncovered an underlying genetic condition that my mum and both my sister’s were also discovered to have. So from now on, we are all monitored every year and will hopefully prevent anyone else in my family from having to go through the cancer journey. Anonymous- Bowel Cancer stage 2b at aged 32. Was a mum of 2 boys, now a mum of 3 boys
“My biggest lesson was to live more in the moment. To see each sunrise and sunset as a gift. It was like I saw this human journey in a whole different light. I’m more accepting of all my human emotions both the good and the uncomfortable ones. I appreciate this rock we are on because I know in the big scheme of things we are here for such a short time. I’m trying to enjoy the human journey as much as I can and connect with as many souls as possible along the way. I was initially diagnosed with stage 3a and refused chemo and radiation but asked to have surgery only. After surgery they revised that stage to 2b but still suggested chemo and radiation. I said no but really only because I have such terrible allergic reactions to many things and a shite immune system. I decided on quality over quantity but know that I could change my mind down the track. I live with LARS but I’m 4 yrs C free and grateful for every day I am” Anonymous, Bowel Cancer initially stage 3a, now stage 2b.
“ The lesson I’ve learnt is ‘don’t live for the future, live for the now’. Treasure the time with your children while they’re here. I’ve also learned that my children, husband and I are stronger than I ever imagined. We’ve weathered this storm together and come through. I’ve come through my emotional journey more aware of my emotions and have more confidence and acceptance of my body. The positives would be that I have been very open about my journey and it’s made other people listen to their bodies, push doctors for further testing and not give up before they have an answer”. KI, Bowel Cancer stage 2 but restaged after surgery as 3c. Mum of 11 and 14 yo at the time of diagnosis
“I am constantly torn between ‘ I can’t let this illness ruin my life’ and ‘I have to listen to my body and rest’…. Take care of you. Everything else can politely wait it’s turn”. M.R Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
“The lessons and positives I’m still working through are that it’s okay to slow down, and I’m worthy of the love and support of the people around me”. CN, Bowel Cancer stage 3B, lover of music, sport, reading, and cats.
“I’m a 29 year old with 4 daughters and terminal lung cancer, despite never smoking, always being fit and active and having a great organic diet. So I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter what you do or how hard you try life doesn’t care and sometimes your only positive is the fact that your still waking up”.
“I wish I had of known that I was always worth loving prior to cancer , I wish I appreciated my hair more (I’m not a fancy mum or anything but it was painful and still is trying to grow it reminds you every morning of the journey ahead) . I wish I had of been healthier and realised without health you don’t have much. My gift was not having my life over in a second , like in a car crash. It’s a gift to plan for my children and create things together they can keep. It’s a gift to realise you have so much more that you never really noticed you had”. SS- Grade 4 Brain Cancer Glioblastoma- Terminal. Mum of 5yo and 8 yo boys. A positive fighter with a bit of spunk.
These women have truly inspired me. Every layer I peel off through my post-cancer self- development, shows me that I have many more layers to go. The humility, insight and honesty that these ladies have shown has made me feel so motivated to be a better version of me.
My gifts and lessons – a new beginning
I have been so amazingly lucky through my recovery. My 6 monthly surveillance tests are coming back clear, my diet has pretty much returned to normal, and I can now eat fibre! YAY. My energy reserves are much better. For the last 12 months I would describe myself as ‘feeling well’ and in reality feeling better than what I was 6 months before my diagnosis. Although- because I had 2 little ones when I was diagnosed, it really was hard to decipher ‘sick’ from mumma life exhaustion.
I have learned that even in times where we feel powerless and at the mercy of our symptoms – there is always hope and choice. A choice to be optimistic that tomorrow is another day, hope that a new treatment will control a symptom and the knowing that nothing (bad or good) will last forever. There is also a choice to ask for help.
Taking control of and owning my thoughts has been one of the most powerful changes I have made. That doesn’t mean that I think about rainbows and butterflies 24/7- it just means that I know I am responsible for the content of my thoughts. By taking ownership, I am taking back my power.
One of my greatest lessons was learning the importance of SLEEP. Without good quality 7 or so hours of sleep- everything is harder. Symptoms are worse, anxiety can seem impossible to manage, ruminating thoughts can take over and physically your body just becomes so depleted. Please put sleep top of your list to sort if you have any issues. There are lots of great remedies and strategies out there!
Today I am working in a new role where I am inspired by amazingly talented people. Through a lot of self-reflection I have found and tapped in to my passion- which is helping others. I find it so fulfilling to share my story and other valuable information with cancer patients to hopefully make their journey a little easier. I am really excited about the next stage of my life. I feel like I am in control of the quality of my life, rather than being at the mercy of whatever the universe throws at me! It’s a great feeling.
I am embracing and LIVING all of the cliché’s- being in the moment, getting out in nature often, appreciating the time that I spend with my loved ones, nurturing the quality friendships over quantity, and avoiding drama. I have leant about the importance of boundaries and surrounding myself with kind and authentic people who ‘light me up’. These steps take practice, and it really is about walking the talk. It takes personal insight and ongoing self-monitoring, so that these changes become second nature. Going off track is inevitable- just be honest with yourself and get back on the right path as soon as you notice that you’ve made a wrong turn.
Taking the time
Now when my sons stop me when I am in a hurry to look at a flower or search for a grasshopper – I am training myself to just be and enjoy the moment. I love asking questions about what they are thinking, what they are finding on their adventures and what makes them happy. I realise that before I became unwell I was always in a hurry- the work/parenting/chores/sleep repeat merry go round. I wasn’t LIVING, I was existing on autopilot- doing all the things……. I was in a monotonous rut and completely missing the world around me.
Other small things have also changed for me. When I am sat in traffic on the motorway, I am so grateful that I am well enough to work and I have the time to sit and listen to a podcast. A slight time delay is now a complete first world problem! I challenge myself- “is this really a problem?”. Embracing my circle of control has been so freeing. With any challenge I check in and only take on what I can change. The rest I let go through to the keeper and accept that worrying is only thinking about things that may not even happen. It really is that simple.
I hope this information helps you or someone that you love through a major challenge. I’d love to hear about your positives and lessons that you have experienced through your journey. Please reach out!
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X The Awakened Mumma, Author of ‘A Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Invisible Cancer Load‘