The Lessons of Cancer
By: Tanya Dodd-Hise
It’s Monday, and as I type this, I am hooked up to an IV line that goes to my chest, pumping in the chemo drugs that had better be annihilating this stupid cancer. I am confidant that when I am done, the scans will show no traces of cancer, and then I can get on with radiation and finish out this year cancer-free. As I sit here, sweatshirt on, blanket on my legs, headphones in my ears and relaxing music piped in… I reflect on this past weekend.
While we were at camp – yeah, it felt kind of like cancer camp for grownups – we had sessions with counselors, art therapy, and some group sessions, to name a few things. One of the things that we did was make a list of things that cancer has taught us. We drew a circle in the middle of a page and wrote those words – “What Cancer Has Taught Me” – and branched things off of it. After we got done, I was pretty amazed at some of the answers – even my own – and thought about what a great blog it would make…so here we are. I decided that I wanted to write and share about what cancer has taught ME, so here are my top 10, done Jay Leno style.
10. Life is Precious. Now we ALL know this, or at least we all SHOULD know this. Our lives are ours, and we are the ones who have been commissioned to protect our lives, even when we don’t think we should. Each and every one of us matters, are important, and have value; and each and every one of us should always remember that.
9. Laughter is Healing. Something that I have always tried to do is keep a sense of humor, no matter what the situation. Yes, some might find it to be inappropriate at times, but sometimes you just have to lighten up a dark or grim situation – like cancer – by inserting some funny into it. The few times that I have cracked and fallen apart, there is almost always a laugh coming at the end of the tears. My friends – my good, true friends – are equally important and talented at knowing when to lighten things up, thus redirecting my focus OFF of myself and my situation and back to the business of being ME.
8. I am STRONG. This one took me a while to figure out. Many people say, when facing a difficult situation, that they don’t know how they will ever do it, or that they just know that they cannot do it. But you know what? We can do pretty much anything we put our mind to! I didn’t think that I could endure all of the loss, years ago, of family and friends who did not “approve” of my relationship with Erikka; but I did. I didn’t think that I could endure anymore hate and ignorance in this world that has been directed at my family, or other families like ours; but together, we have. I didn’t think that I could endure my oldest son’s teenage years and a custody suit that almost broke me down to my core; but I did and came through to the other side. I didn’t think that I could ever endure breast cancer and all of the procedures and treatments that I watched my mother go through seven years ago; but I did. I have. And I AM. I have discovered that I am way stronger than I ever gave myself credit for, and it is still amazing to discover it!
7. Our bodies CAN turn on us. The year before my surgery, I had started walking, then running, for exercise. I had lost 32 pounds before my diagnosis, and I was going to the gym at least three days per week for Aqua Cardio, as well as regular cardio and weight work. I was in better shape than I had been my entire adult life, eating better and taking care of my body, when I found a lump and was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. We have no way of knowing how much of my diagnosis was due to things that I had done in my unhealthy past (smoking, overeating, etc.), how much was environmental, how much was familial, or how much was just sorry luck of the draw. But it was eye-opening to know that cancer has no agenda, and will pick and choose whomever it wants to be its victim.
6. Our health is one of the most important things that we can control. Yes, we have control over our health. Many of us choose not to, until it’s too late and we are trying to control disease in order to extend our life. Had we taken control earlier, then we may not need to try to do damage control later on. But truly, knowing what I know now, if I could go back, I would totally change how I ate and took care of my body in order to not go through this. I will also say that while having cancer totally sucks and makes me feel miserable, I don’t think that I would give it back because of all that I have seen, done, and learned through this process. So take back your health, if it has gone askew; be the one to make healthy lifestyle choices and decisions – trust me, it makes a difference!
5. Love is stronger than fear. There is a LOT of fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis. While a doctor typically won’t tell you, “Hey you have cancer. You’re going to die,” it is still very scary to hear those words and resist the panic that comes with it. All of the “what ifs” creep in and can become overwhelming. What if I DO die? Who will take care of my kids? Who will close out all of my accounts? Who will make sure to clean out my nightstands before my mother decides that she wants to pack up my things? Who will take care of my wife? Who will take Noah to camp, and make sure that Harrison and Zoe remember me somehow? But somehow, someway, every time those thoughts sneak in, someone comes along and replaces them with love and assurance, and those fearful thoughts are banished from my mind.
4. Support can come from the most unexpected places. I was really, really worried when I got diagnosed about a multitude of things. I had no insurance, so how in the world would I get through treatment? Would the doctors recognize my wife as such and allow her to accompany me, for big things as well as little ones? What was I going to do about money, without me working and bringing in money for the majority of the year? What will I do about money now that the money raised for us is running out? But yet, my worries have all been answered by amazing people who have come out of the woodwork to offer love, support, and financial assistance when needed. We have gotten money sent to us from the most unsuspecting people, and have been eternally grateful for the kindness of both strangers and friends. And support hasn’t always been financial stuff at all. We have a multitude of friends who we consider family that have helped with both of the kids (mostly the baby), and without them, I don’t know how I would have gotten through some of the rough days.
3. There is a LOT of good in a LOT of people. I will never have an opportunity to thank and hug all of the people who have helped us get through this ordeal, especially in the beginning when it was all new and very scary. People that we didn’t know sent meals and filled our freezer. Other people that we don’t know, as well as those that we do, raised money and had benefits in my honor, and provided us with much needed financial help to get the bills paid during these months that I would not be working. I have had prayers and well-wishes sent to me via ecards, cards in the mail, and even cookies, by folks that I have never met and might not ever. Still others have cleaned our house for free, and taken care of our rambunctious toddler on days that I just don’t feel good enough to do so. Because of social networking, we are constantly bombarded and blasted with ignorance and hatefulness going on in the world around us, and it becomes difficult to see that there is still any good left anywhere other than mankind’s own agendas. But cancer has shown me that despite all of that ignorance and hate, there is so much good in our fellow mankind – friends, family, strangers alike. We just have to really, really look for it, listen for it….and it will present itself. It actually renews my faith in humanity, and because I’ve seen it and know that it’s there, it can’t be taken away from me.
2. Body image is a constantly evolving thing. Boy ain’t THIS the truth!? Just when I thought that I was actually getting happier with the body I was seeing when I got dressed, I got knocked down a peg or two! After surgery, it took weeks before I could look in the mirror when undressing and not want to cry. I still have my moments, too. But as the swelling has gone down only somewhat, I am learning to accept the new image that I see when I look in the mirror. And as I continue to take chemo – weekly now – I have noticed that my face has gotten more round and circular looking (like a plate head). I hate the way that I look! It has been very distressing to look in a mirror and know that this person looking back is not me – ohmygawd there is a SICK person looking back at me! I look like a cancer patient! Well holy hell….that sucks. So I now have to get used to a new normal, and hopefully when I am done with treatment.
And the #1 lesson that cancer has taught me….
1. Boobs aren’t all THAT important. Now don’t take this the wrong way, because I know how important it is to many mothers to nurse their babies and give them awesome milk to grow and become strong little people. But I had already used mine to nurse two babies, and before surgery, all I did was complain about their size and heaviness. I was constantly trying to find a bra that didn’t roll up underneath, or a sports bra that didn’t create a uniboob. I complained about their size, and was jealous of trans friends who got “top surgery” to take them off and not worry about them anymore. In the grand scheme of things? Mine tried to kill me, so I had them lobbed off, with no reconstruction planned or discusses. They were just big lumps of fat on my chest, and I do not want to die just to have them. Now that I am several months out from surgery, I have my moments where I miss them, and wish that my body was whole. I still struggle with how mangled and deformed I feel, and know that there is nothing that I can do to change it. I know this though – my breasts did not define me before, so they won’t define me now. I can exercise and work out again and build up my chest to not look so flat; and eventually have some badass tattoos done to cover my scars. But most importantly, cancer has taught me that no set of boobs are ever worth dying over….I’m just sayin.’