It’s September. It’s thyroid cancer awareness month. Many of my thyroid cancer friends are using social media to put the word out about thyroid cancer. To tell people to check their necks, that it’s not the good cancer like we are told, and that there are more body parts that get cancer than boobs. I have done this myself for many years. Shared my story, tried to help others. This year, I just can’t seem to work up to it. I am not in the right place “in my recovery” right now. I still want to participate in the support groups I am in, I still want to help the people I mentor, talk with my cancer friends. In fact, I am going to meet 2 of them next month in real life and am really excited about it. But I just can’t post about neck checking and radiation awareness and …. and all things thyroid cancer …… not right now for some reason.
So I decided to talk about what cancer has given me. Cancer takes a lot. Sometimes it takes your life. Some times it takes your quality of life. It almost always takes your time and well-being at least for a while.
But in my case I am at the point where I can look back and see what cancer has given me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those “sunshine and lollipop” girls. I don’t go around trying to find the good in every situation. In fact, I very often do the opposite. But I do know that cancer has given me some things.
1. A new perspective. The summer before I was diagnosed with cancer I got a haircut. I hated this haircut. I could see that I hated it before I even left the salon. It was exactly the haircut I asked the girl not to give me. I remember this very well because I was “home” for the week and I went to my dad’s office and cried. I mean cried. Now, in my defense, I was like 6 months pregnant and had undiagnosed thyroid cancer, so I was a ball of horrible hormones. And I felt giant and puffy and not attractive at all, so having my beautiful hair ruined made me feel worse. But still. I cried about my hair cut. In front of people. My SIL tried to help me figure out how to style it and I got over it. I got a new haircut a few weeks later. 8 years later I have noticeably thinning, greasy hair. I mean really greasy. I can’t go 14 hours without it turning to grease. It’s one of the side effects of synthetic thyroid hormones and my body not processing stuff right. Thin, greasy hair. Nice side effect. I hate my hair. Even though I have a stylist I love now, I never ever like my hair much. I used to truly love my long, thick, soft hair. Now I hate it. You get the drift. BUT, guess what is the last worry on my mind almost every day of my life? My hair. I do it, I let it go. I don’t worry about it. It’s hair. I watch it fall out, I watch it get greasy. I take 2 showers on days we are going somewhere important at night. That’s it. Hair.
I use this perspective as much as I can. It helps. A lot. Things don’t go your way one day? Everything goes wrong? Life just seems to suck this week? It’s not cancer. You aren’t dying. Move on.
2. Inner strength. Nothing makes you feel strong like surviving a disease that kills so many people. People say “fight the good fight”, “you are a survivor”, “kick cancer’s ass.” That makes you feel pretty strong inside. But those moments when you don’t know if you can go on, those moments when you don’t want to go on, but you do…. those are the times that really let you know what you are made of.
3. Knowing how to take care of myself. Look, I was never good at this. I was a mess for the beginning of my adulthood. I didn’t know how to “function well.” I didn’t do the things I needed to do for me. Now I do. Now if I need to rest, I rest. If I need to meditate, I meditate. If I need to eat better, I try to eat better (work in progress here.) I do my PT stretches very day. I gave in to my migraine doc and I started taking pills to help me sleep when I need to. I say no to things I don’t have the energy for. I don’t hang out with people who make me unhappy or don’t add to my life in someway. I don’t do things that don’t benefit me or my family or make me happy in some way. I focus my energy on things I really value. I don’t party late or drink much or go out with my friends on the town. I miss that sometimes, but I also know it makes me feel badly for days. I take my meds at the same time every day. I don’t miss any. I see my docs when I need to. I get injections in my head and face and sternum and neck to help with my pain. Every 3 months for all 3 procedures. I get pedicures once in a while. I write. I read. I watch a tv show with my hubby most nights and we visit a little. I try to catch moments with my son and freeze them in my memory. I try to breathe him in. I like those times. I don’t beat myself up if I am not running around with a butterfly net trying to catch those times, either. I breathe. I love. I see the people who I love when I can. I try not to fight against or about things I can’t change. I try to change things I can. I work at staying in touch.
4. Being able to ask for and accept help. I went a long time without accepting help from anyone. I didn’t want it. I wanted to do things my way. I didn’t want to owe anyone or to let anyone have power over me. I accepted help from my parents (again, I was a mess a lot of the time) but I hated it because then I felt like they were in control of me somehow. And accepting help was a difficult as taking care of myself. Not a pretty place to be. Then I got sick. I got married, I got pregnant, I got sick with a newborn. Suddenly I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t wash our clothes. I couldn’t get dinner on the table. I couldn’t do anything I needed to do. I accepted help from perfect strangers my parents conjured up, old friends of theirs, family members of friends of mine. I asked for help from friends. My parents became parents again – the kind of parents that get up in the night and feed your baby, the kind of parents that get up in the night and make you take your meds, the kind of parents who go to bed at night bone tired and wash your clothes and feed you. I accepted help from my sister-in-law. I accepted help from people in my parent’s church who I hadn’t seen in years, from my aunts, from cousins, from my brother, from my grandma, from my husband, from everyone in my life, it seemed. I got really good at sending thank you notes. This went on for over 3 years on and off. And even after the surgeries and treatments were over and the healing was beginning, I still needed a whole lot of help. I learned something about asking for help during this time. I learned it’s ok. It doesn’t hurt you. It doesn’t demean you. We have lost the ability to ask for and accept help in our culture and it’s a shame. Because asking for and accepting help – it doesn’t just benefit you. It benefits the helper as well. it benefits the people who help you, and their families. It “fills their cup” if you will. And now when I can help, I do. Because my cup needs filled as well.
5. Learning to live with change. I am not good with change. I never have been. That’s the way my world is. I like it this way and not that way. I want everyone to kind of stay the same and go along their merry way, doing what they have always done in the places they have always done them. But they don’t. And neither do I. We can’t. In 2006 I got married, I got pregnant, I stopped working, I had a baby, and I had my first thyroid cancer surgery. Those events are entwined in my psyche. I can’t think of one without the other. That year my whole life changed. And a few years later it happened again. And again. And again. Not just with cancer. With many other pieces of my life. I still don’t like change. But I am learning to live with it with some sort of peace. I am learning to try to stay in the eye of the storm instead of running headlong into the winds.
6. Learning that time is relative. 5 hours in excruciating pain seems like an eternity. Imagine months of it. Moments become days. Time drags on so slowly it feels like you are in one of those movies where the second hand on the clock takes 2 minutes to move. The secret is, it works the other way too. 5 hours meeting up with your cousin and best friend on the last day of your vacation can also feel like a long time. If you let it. If you slow down and appreciate it. If you stop stressing about where you have to be and why your kid is acting like a fool and what your in-laws are saying. If you slow down, you can slow down those great moments too. 3 days in ICU sucks pretty bad. 3 days in the mountains with most of your extended family you only see once every few years? That can be pretty darn cool. But you have to allow it to be cool. Pain takes you to the point where all you can focus on is the pain. That is why time slows down. In order to enjoy the good moments, you have to consciously focus on what you are doing right now. Focus on the good, focus on what your friend is saying. You only get to eat dinner with her twice a year, if that, slow down, listen, enjoy the sound of her voice. Drink in her words. Look at her eyes. Focus. Put down your phone, let your kid run all over the park and get dirty, ignore the distractions, slow down and listen. We don’t do that enough anymore, and we need to. I believe our minds and our bodies crave it. It’s a choice, and I try to make it.
7. Kindness. Sometimes I don’t chose to be kind. Sometimes I think it’s more important to be right, or to prove a point, or to tell someone “how it is”. That hurts everyone. Kindness matters. The other day one of my friends posted a little article on facebook with her opinion on it. I completely disagreed with her. As I clicked to comment and express my disagreement, I paused. I knew it had been a long week for my friend. I knew that if I commented there would be a whole long line of comments after mine either agreeing with her or I. I knew that it would cause unneeded stress for her. Probably for me too. For some reason I had latched on to this particular article and it was hard for me to stop thinking about it. I do that sometimes. My friend wasn’t hurting anyone, or ruining the world, or even hurting anyone’s feelings. It wasn’t really a big deal. So several times I told my self “kindness matters.” Several times I stopped hovering over the “comments” box and I told myself to stop. It’s a simple, simple example. But that’s what we have the opportunity to chose every single day. Yes, if you are hurting someone else, I am going to speak up. Other than that, I have decided that it’s more important to be kind when I can. Imagine a world where we all choose to be kind whenever possible. Imagine a world where people don’t flip you off in traffic, or shake their head at you as you cross the street, or sigh really loudly behind you in the grocery line. Imagine a world where we all treated EVERYONE else with kindness. Kindness matters.
8. Love. This one is more difficult to express. But love has been an important part of my journey. I used to close off my heart a lot. I am very empathetic and I love too much and too hard. I used to protect myself by keeping people at an arm’s length as much as I could. I tried to pre-perceive any pain that person might cause me and keep them just far enough away from me that I wouldn’t hurt so much when we said goodbye. I also made some bad decisions about whom I hung out with, and some of that arm’s length was justified.
And now? Now I find that if you love someone, that love will only multiply. You will receive so much more love if you give love. Yes, sometimes you love people who will hurt you. Sometimes they will hurt you really badly. Sometimes things in a relationship get really uncomfortable and weird and you just want to back away and run. Sometimes you meet someone whom you really just don’t like all that much and you don’t want to let them into your inner circle. And those things are all ok, too – in fact, sometimes those feelings are a protective reaction - that gut feeling that you should just stay away. Like when you see a snake or spider. Like when you pull your hand away from something hot. It’s natural. It’s good to listen to.
(Disclaimer: This part is not about people who hurt you physically, or people who hurt you intentionally over and over. This part is not about abuse or assault or people who take advantage of you. That kind of hurt is not useful and we all need to protect ourselves from it.)
(extra space, because here comes the important part)
What is not ok is to not love other people because of the one person who hurt you or made you feel weird. Or the 10 people who hurt you or made you feel weird. What is not ok is to stop allowing love in your life. What is not ok is to deprive yourself of love from other people and of loving other people because you might get hurt. Guess what? You get hurt. People hurt you. That’s life. Your siblings and your parents and your husband and wife and boyfriends and best friends and most frequently your children – they will all hurt you at some time. They will, most likely. And then what? What do you do? Do you stop loving them? No. You breathe deep. You work through it. You talk to them. Or you don’t and you find a way to let it go. You realize that they are different from you, they didn’t know they were hurting you, they didn’t know you were upset, or they were in a bad place. You move on. You move forward. Don’t, for the love of man, stop making new friends and loving new people. Don’t deprive yourself of that. You deserve love. You deserve people around you who make you smile, who make you want to be your best self. Who make you want to make time for them. Find those people. Love them. Make time for the people in your life you really need – like oxygen – and see them, or talk to them, or email them, or facebook them, or google hang out with them… there are many options. But do it. It may be inconvenient, it may take time or money. Make it happen when you can.
There are other things that cancer has taught me or given me. But these are my top 8.
I look back on my journey (which may not be over yet, but right here and now things look good, so we are taking that and running with it) …. I look back on my journey now and I don’t think “geez, I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Cancer gave me so much more than it took.” There are moments, hours, days, weeks, months that I would gladly give up in this journey. But, I do say, “I wouldn’t trade learning all those things, spending all that time with my boy, having all that time with my family, seeing the world through new eyes… I wouldn’t trade that part of it for the world.”