On Being a Breast Cancer Survivor

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On Being a Breast Cancer Survivor

On Being a Breast Cancer Survivor

This essay is in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

This month—plus all other 11 months of the year—I’m reflecting on an experience that has rattled me and turned me inside out and back again. I’m also remembering, missing and mourning all the dear friends I’ve lost (especially my two best friends, Wendy and Shelley). And lastly, I’m holding each and every women who is fighting breast cancer deep in my heart, sending them strength and love.

Imagine, if you can, being handed a gift. It’s not your birthday or any other special occasion. You’re a bit stumped. Why am I getting this, you think? Where did it come from?

Once you take hold of the package—it’s thrust upon you; you simply have no choice—you notice its heft: Its bulky form defies definition. It’s confusing, unexpected and quite ugly. It weighs heavily on you, alters your breathing and makes you quite sad, really.

You yearn to give it back, or even—heaven forbid—re-gift it (but you don’t have the heart to do that).

What is this? I don’t want it. I don’t know what to do with it.

Why me?

Take it back!!!!

But as soon as the gift is given, the giver disappears, leaving you on your own to figure it all out.

You’ve heard rumors that it is, indeed, a gift that you will be grateful for one day. You’ve heard people say it was the greatest gift they’ve never wanted.

At first, you resent it, curse at it and throw objects, like sneakers, at it. It makes you bellow with rage. Hole up under the covers. How dare life go on around you; people smiling and celebrating and enjoying themselves when something like this is in your life?

You place it out of the way, on a high shelf.

But even though it’s not within reach, it brings out an ugly side of you that you barely recognize and are surprised to discover: An anxious, bitter, angry and cynical person. Your former self—the one who couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and embrace the day; the one who made people laugh; the one who loved her children so deeply she was afraid they’d crack under the weight of her hugs—has gone missing.

Time passes. And with each day, you begin to figure it all out. It’s hard work, making sense of this gift. Every once in a while, you glimpse it sitting up on a high shelf and its amoeba-like form begins to take on a more distinctive shape. The edges are not as blurry; the surface not as rough.

You eventually dare to take it off the shelf and hold it.

And when you do, you’re surprised: It’s not as heavy as I thought, you say out loud to no one. It feels quite nice, you think; almost comforting in a way. You stroke its strong, smooth shell, wondering what happened to the bumps that you swore once poked out of its surface.

And just as unexpectedly as the gift’s shape has changed you are hugging it tightly to your chest. As you squeeze it, you know that it won’t crack—by then you have realized your children haven’t cracked either—and you will be OK.

Breast cancer. It challenged, humbled and frightened you beyond measure. It was bumpy, heavy, cumbersome and ugly. You wanted to give it back.

But then … that gift, which metamorphosed into survivorship, sparkles and glows with such startling brilliance that you find that you need it just as much as the air you breathe.

All things suddenly seem brighter, more luminous. Was the color red ever so brilliant and complex at the same time? Why hadn’t you ever before noticed that traffic doesn’t matter and a bad mood will pass? Why did you ever think that a new day was a given and not to be celebrated?

That gift—the one once thrust upon you, unwanted and unwelcome—has morphed into a beautiful swan.

It’s brought new meaning to your life. Along with its challenges, it’s granted you peace, health, serenity and a brute strength that you never imagined could—or would—ever belong to you again.

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