It was my daughter’s fifth birthday, and while she was giddy and jumping around as any 5 year old should, I was a nervous wreck. I sat motionless on my couch, staring at the clock, waiting for the phone to ring. When it finally did, I snatched it up quickly, and with a shaking voice, I answered. It was the call I had been waiting for from my doctor and it was not good news. I remember the wave of panic that swept my body and the hot tears that filled my eyes as I heard the nurse say “I’m so sorry, it’s cancer.”
The next few weeks were a blur of doctors appointments, more tests, hard conversations with loved ones, and a whole lot of trying to process what was happening. I was only 36 years old and this wasn’t even a thought on my horizon. Now, I was fully submerged in survival mode.
It started like most of these stories do, with a lump. Growing up with cysts however, I had become used to ignoring them as they would grow, shrink, and grow again. This time was different. My gut was screaming at me that something was wrong, and so I listened. I went to my OBGYN who referred me for an ultrasound which led to a mammogram which ended with a biopsy. Two days later, I had my results. It was a whirlwind.
My Dad had passed away from colon cancer after a long battle and my Mom had survived breast cancer. To me, they were warriors fighting the fight that no one wants to face. To me, they were amazing. And now here I was facing the same battle and I didn’t feel like a warrior and I most certainly didn’t feel amazing. I was scared beyond any fear I had ever felt before. I had dreams of standing face to face with death and begging to stay, begging to be able to parent my 2 small children, begging to live out my fairytale love story with my husband. I would awake in a cold sweat, my breath coming in short and panicked bursts as reality would set in and I would realize it was a dream, yet still a very possible reality. I operated throughout the day surviving on dark humor and tired platitudes. I faked strength and pulled smiles from the darkness I was feeling. It all changed for me at one of my many doctors appointments. The nurse, who had seen the faces of terrified women day in and day out in her profession, said something so simple to me.
She said “It’s ok to be scared because this is a scary situation. It’s ok to cry.”
No one had ever said that to me before. I had been brought up to believe that I was too sensitive and needed to be stoic. I was raised on the saying that “someone always has it worse.” These things rattled in my head as a constant reminder to be the warrior that I thought everyone was expecting me to be, the warrior I had seen my parents be facing the same thing.
That was all it took. The simple act of permission. This permission exists for us to give to ourselves at any time. Sometimes however, it feels inaccessible, like a locked cubby in your basement covered in dust and shaded in darkness. You forget about it until you need something from it, and then you pry your way in, blow the dust off, and clutch your treasure close.
I allowed myself to begin to really feel and be authentic about my situation. I cried. I asked people to stop saying the cliched platitudes that made me feel icky. I told my loved ones exactly how much I loved and appreciated them. I cried some more. I said that I was scared…out loud. I asked the questions that felt silly. I advocated for myself at the doctors and pushed for the things I wanted and needed. I was vulnerable when it felt right. I removed myself from situations I didn’t feel comfortable in. I still used dark humor because it did (and still does) make me feel better.
There were huge, scary, and wild parts of my story that are much more interesting; but I share this small interaction because it ended up being the biggest turning point in my life. It made me feel like I could express my fears and emotions. It led me to begin therapy for the first time in my life. It led me on a healing journey from so many things I was hurting from.
I want everyone to feel the freedom of permission. It’s ok to be scared, uncomfortable, and vulnerable in the face of adversity. Being a warrior doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being a warrior means you do it anyway through the scared, uncomfortable, and vulnerable.
My hope is that whether you are in a cancer journey, are a cancer survivor, or have a loved one who is, that you remember that bravery exists in the space of doing it anyways. You don’t have to be anything for anyone but yourself. It is not your job to make others comfortable. It is your job to take care of yourself the best way you can; and to do so, authenticity is key. So feel, cry, scream into a pillow, go for an angry run, make a playlist that you can sing the lyrics to at the top of your lungs, take up kickboxing; but most importantly, remember that you are absolutely not alone.
“Feel it on the first” is a saying to help you to remember to self-exam each month on the first. Please find this resource from The National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. on how to best give yourself an exam. See your doctor regularly. Get those mammograms, and when in doubt, speak up. Your biggest advocate is you.
Shared with love & hope, Sarah