I was asked to serve as the survivor speaker at Overlook Medical Center’s Reception to Honor Cancer Survivors on Saturday, June 4th. There were over 90 survivors and their family members in the room. It was an incredible experience and so very moving. The following is the content of my talk:
Hello everyone! I want to start out by saying how immensely honored I am to be standing here as this year’s survivor speaker. Last year, I wasn’t ready to even attend this event and now here I stand. That’s typical of how my cancer journey has been – bumps and losses along the way, but full of surprises and gifts.
Every single one of us diagnosed with cancer remembers that moment when we went from blissful ignorance, to concentrating our entire being on beating it back. We began the marathon with the process of initial diagnosis, which involves scary and painful testing. We push through to treatment, terrified to submit to surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, but knowing that we have to be brave to face what needs to be done.
As for me, I had mammograms, a stereotactic core biopsy and a surgical biopsy and was finally diagnosed with breast cancer on February 20, 2009. On April 15th, I had a right breast mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction. I had a second reconstructive surgery on September 29th, 2009. I’ll be taking that little white pill for five years.
Now, after going through all that we’ve gone through – or unfortunately are still going through, let’s take a take a breath and ask ourselves – What does it mean to survive?
They say you become a survivor the moment you receive a diagnosis. That may be true, but I didn’t feel like a survivor until approximately nine months after my mastectomy. Something amazing happened to me. I slowly realized that I was keeping a mental tally of the many changes cancer was bringing me – and although the losses were very evident, I was beginning to see that there were real gifts. So, I decided to write them down side by side.
On the losses side, I wrote about things like body image, scars, fear of recurrence, emotional upheaval, mortality, watching my husband and children suffer, lack of control, being overwhelmed. But for each loss, there were corresponding gifts, such as the gift of introspection discovering yoga and meditation, making friends I never would have met but for cancer, becoming more aware of the present moment, learning to say “yes” to myself, fuller relationships, and writing.
Eventually, that list gave birth to a website. I created WhereWeGoNow.com as a community for people who are surviving the cancer experience and living to find a new life of resilience, focus and courage. At the beginning of my journey, all I wanted was to get back to my “real” life. But I came to understand, because of the Gifts and Losses List that, although my life was littered with cancer’s losses, in order to heal, I had to honestly admit and appreciate the many gifts cancer was bringing my way.
Despite all the work I’ve done with the Gifts and Losses List as the focal point of my healing and of WWGN, what I didn’t realize until I sat down to think about what I wanted to say here today is that I left out the first Gift – the biggest Gift – and I believe the gift from which all the other gifts sprang. And that gift is gratitude.
Now when I talk about gratitude, I’m talking about overwhelming, intense gratitude. Gratitude like I never felt before in my life. With that gratitude came purpose – I will find a way, in fact I will find several ways, to give back and show my gratitude for all that I have received.
I have to say that, despite the fact that I felt gratitude very early on in the process, I think it took until now for me to recognize it as one of cancer’s gifts because it’s not easy to be grateful for cancer. I didn’t want anyone, especially me, to even think for a second, that getting cancer was a “good” thing. Because we all know it isn’t. But I am here today, and WhereWeGoNow.com is here today because of gratitude. It is because of gratitude, and my commitment to telling everyone I talked to how much I wanted to give back, that I was asked to serve on the Oncology Community Advisory Board of the cancer center, and work as a patient educator with the Connection’s Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, both of which have so enriched my life.
When this crazy journey started, it was also gratitude which slowly pushed down fear as the primary emotion of my every waking moment.
It was gratitude, number one, for the fact that I am alive: to me survivorship is a lot like what Mark Twain said about old age: it isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
It was gratitude for my husband, Michael, who faced this disease with me and did his best to stare down his fears in order to take care of me. I’m so grateful to him for being there for me on this journey, and of course, on the larger journey which is our life together.
It was gratitude for my children, Emma and Mike, who at just 15 and 12 years old when I was diagnosed showed amazing courage and strength. It’s an unspeakable thing to reveal your mortality to your children; it changes everything in their world. But somehow they dealt with all of that and I am so very proud of them.
It was gratitude for my mother, Ginny, and my several (I have 8!) brothers and sisters. That magical, very large, circle which is the Woodbury family supported me with visits, phone calls and solidarity. Of course, my mother went above and beyond helping to care for me during my recuperation and I thank her again.
It was gratitude for my friends, especially my lifelong friend Linda Plano who supported me on a daily basis, despite living over 250 miles away. Her availability and dedication to me whenever I needed her were constant sources of support.
Now, I have to say that I wasn’t a bit surprised that all of these people were there for me. Except for my children, I’ve know all of them 20 plus years, and I’ve known my children their entire lives. So I know how they roll.
What surprised me, in fact, I’d have to say it overwhelmed me, was the level of support I found at Overlook Hospital. I struggled 6 and 1/2 months from mammogram to mastectomy without that support. I had my family and friends, of course, but they were scared too and couldn’t possibly understand all I was going through. I fully expected after my discharge to be sent home to heal both physically and emotionally on my own, as I had done those first awful 6 and 1/2 months.
But what I found from the first moments in pre-op, to the surgical nurse who hovered over me until I fell asleep, to the white angel who tended to me when I awoke, was that I was awash in loving care. And then, into my hospital room, on April 16th, 2009, walked Sarah Mandel, who announced that she was my (My!) breast nurse navigator.
I remember talking with her and being simply amazed. Who was this person who just walked in and told me that from now on, she’s with me every step of the way? From that day to this very day, Sarah has been my dedicated, compassionate advocate who supports me whenever and however I need. I still reach out to her (Just the other day) and she still makes me feel like I am her only priority. My gratitude for Sarah and all she manages to do knows no bounds.
Now, here’s the best part – Not only do you get Sarah, but Sarah turns you on to all the other support services. She told me about the free (I couldn’t believe it, free?!) oncology therapy, which I began as soon as I could get a ride back to the hospital. I spent an hour a week with Kristen Scarlett, who became my anchor in all things emotional. I had no idea the depths to which cancer would pull me, but she did and she became my trusted guide to all the hard work it would take to work through it.
When Kristen left on maternity leave, I continued therapy with Sara Duphiney. I spent a lot of time in a small room with Sara. Every hour brought me closer to finding myself through the muck of all that cancer stirred up in my life. Her guidance, listening, support and deep concern for my welfare were my life lines through the whole experience. I don’t know how I could have possibly survived it all without her and Kristen and I will be forever grateful.
I joined a support group where I met Lee Anne Caffrey, who, whether we sit and talk for 30” or just say “hello” always cheers me up. I did the “Look Good . . . Feel Better” program and did!
I joined another support group with the two Sarahs and I received massage therapy from Alyssa Millman. Alyssa dedicated herself to figuring out my TRAM flapped insides and making them feel better. She researched my condition, gave me all the time she could and educated me. But most of all, she touched me. She worked on my body with the care, sensitivity and artistry of a healer.
I signed up for Lockey Maisonneuve’s MovingOn rehabilitative exercise class twice. (I tried, but she wouldn’t let me sign up a third time.) As a fellow breast cancer survivor, Lockey inspired me to regain control over my body and thus my life. My healing is Lockey’s passion and no one brings the joy into a room like she does.
And finally, I am so grateful to have met and continue to meet all the incredible cancer survivors whose cancer journey intersected with my own. Our true strength is in our solidarity, our empathy and in our commitment to helping each other heal. I honor you for your amazing resilience and determination to surmount all that I know you have endured. You are my role models and fellow travelers and I am so thankful for the opportunity to be here with each of you.
To all of these amazing people, thank you for your enthusiasm, compassion and thank you for the gift of your friendship. I am forever grateful to you all. Having all of you in my life has cemented my philosophy and that of WWGN about positivity and survivorship. I don’t believe positivity means that everything from now on will be AOK and I’ll never have to wrestle with cancer again. I know bad things can happen. But what I learned from this experience is that there are people in my corner who support me every step of the way. Because of those people, I know I can face whatever may come next on my cancer journey, because I am truly not alone.
Now I have to share one more story: Just the other day I was volunteering with Sarah Mandel at a Lobby Day table in the cancer center. A woman walked up who was obviously upset and began talking to Sarah. I walked away to give them privacy, but, after a few minutes, Sarah called me back. She introduced me to the woman as a fellow breast cancer survivor. She introduced the woman and explained that she had been diagnosed just six weeks ago and her double mastectomy and TRAM flap were scheduled the next morning. The woman looked at me, with tears in her eyes, and I told her, first things first, we need a hug. She cried on my shoulder. We then talked about the surgery and what to expect, but mostly I talked about how it gets better – because here I am today healthy and happy. Other women came over and supported her and, before we separated, we gave her our phone numbers. She thanked us for talking with her and said it helped her feel better.
Before I experienced cancer’s gift of gratitude, I existed merely as a cancer patient. But survival is greater than existence and I was elevated to survivorship as a result of the interconnectedness of all of those people in my corner, each of every one of whom shared their unique gift of healing with me. Without them, and without their unique energy, I would never have come to know the wonder of cancer survival – which, for me, can only be fully appreciated when it is returned, full circle, by giving back to others.
Thank you very much.