“You have cancer.”
My arm shakes and the phone threatens to slip through my instantly clammy hand.
This can’t be happening. Not yet. I’m not ready…
My other hand grips the scratchy surface of the purple couch that caught me when my knees gave out. Panic seizes my chest in a vice and I almost wish the stark white wall of the Convention Center in front of me would cave in and push me through the glass railing behind me. At least then I could free-fall out of this moment and into the courtyard below. I stare at the spot where the gray rubber moulding meets the brown carpet and count to ten in an attempt to keep the tears lodged in my pooling eyes.
Three little words and my safe, comfortable life ends and I am tossed into the rapids of an aggressive and unyielding river of sickness. Three minutes ago, I was a 30-year-old successful Recruitment Consultant at a conference full of Project Management Professionals. My biggest concerns in life: snagging the perfect man to start a family with and growing my career to an even higher level of success.
Now, in less time than it takes to order a latte, I am a cancer patient? Although I have lived with a known genetic risk of breast cancer for ten years, I didn’t think it could possibly catch up with me yet.
The doctor continues to blather about surgery and the possibility of chemotherapy. I respond with monosyllables, empty out my purse in search of a pen, and finally scrawl the time and location for tomorrow’s appointment across the top of one of the dog-eared resumes in my portfolio.
When I hang up, silence and shock hover around me like a stiff wool blanket. My hands flutter from couch to phone to portfolio before they finally rest in my lap. I stare at my thumbnails as hot tears finally spill out, run down my cheeks, and gather in wet circles on my crisp white blouse.
Fear has lodged itself in my windpipe; a fear so big that I can’t speak. Besides, maybe if I don’t have to say the words: 30, single, breast cancer, I can escape the inevitable. Pictures of dealing with surgery, baldness, and potential infertility bombard me into numbness. I sit in silence and long for someone to rescue me from my brand new hell.
It is now a year and a half later and I am in awe of how much those three little words changed my life. I won’t sit here and tell you that my experience with cancer was an incredible gift, because it didn’t always feel that way.
When I sat sobbing on the floor of my shower because I held the remnants of my hair in my hands or when I first saw the bright red, angry scars on my post-mastectomy chest, I did not feel grateful. All I felt was angry and depressed. I hated cancer. I hated my life. I hated that I could not escape either cancer or my life.
But, time has given me the gift of perspective. In some ways, cancer was the cosmic 2×4 I needed to change the way I live. The catalyst that helped me to stop working 80-hour weeks, to stop obsessing about trying to control everything and everyone around me, and most importantly to stop beating myself up for my imperfections.
Now, people barely recognize me. I have become someone who starts a blog then quits my job to pursue a writing career without a concrete plan for generating income; someone who makes a snap decision to volunteer in Africa for six weeks because I want the most recent experience in my life to be about taking care of others instead of having to be taken care of; and someone who believes that somehow, someway my dream of publishing my first book will become a reality.
This isn’t just a book about cancer. This is a book about surviving hardship, but not identifying yourself as the victim…a book about using humour to laugh your way through terror…a book about the search for God or a deeper meaning to life, but not a religious book …a book about finding love in the strangest of places, but learning that someone else’s love can’t save you…a book about realizing that underneath all of the fear and shame we cloak ourselves in, we (even with all of our imperfections) really are enough.
So, although I wasn’t always grateful to my cancer experience, I can now see that waiting on the other side of my brand new hell was A Fresh Chapter.
Terri Wingham is a blogger, world traveler, friend, sister, aunt, daughter, wine lover, post-wine booty shaker, writer, dreamer, and breast cancer survivor. Terri’s current address is in Vancouver, Canada, but after her recent return from 10 weeks in Africa, she is itching to finish her book, pack her bags, and keep living the dream…. Destination? TBD. Follow Terri’s adventures on her blog: A Fresh Chapter. www.afreshchapter.com.