Yes, it has been a while. Again. But I’m here. I have something I wrote for a few events for which I recently had the privilege to speak. That speech is below. More another day.
Being diagnosed with cancer was one of the most terrifying, and most liberating events of my life. On August 28, 2009, when I was told that I had colon cancer, I thought that my life was over. I was certain that the disease had spread all over my body, eating away at the life I had left. That day was one of the worst days of my life.
At the same time, that day gave me something I would never expect. It gave me hope. The sky looked different from that day on. The trees were greener and the air was cleaner. Food tasted better, and I wanted to live to experience all of the wonders that life had to offer. From that day, I knew I would live to see the day that I did not have cancer. I had to.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was working at a prestigious boarding school, as both an English teacher and Communications Director. I was forming a career, and I had started graduate school for English. I was even married. I had it all, or so I thought.
Once I was diagnosed, I was forced to step back and examine my life and the choices I had made. Why was I married? Why was I teaching? Did I love my life? Those questions proved much more difficult to answer than I had hoped, so I decided to make a change. One of my first small steps toward recovery was to begin belly-dancing classes – I found this mode of exercise doable during chemotherapy, and it reminded me that I was a woman, not just a cancer victim.
Once I could see the end of chemotherapy on the horizon, I had to get involved. I knew that I owed my support to others going through this journey. In March of 2010, I participated in my first event with the American Cancer Society, called Cupcakes for Cures. This is an annual cupcake baking competition, and I won first place in the gluten-free category. Once that event concluded, I was asked to take on the job of Volunteer Coordinator for Relay for Life of Asheville for the 2010 Relay season, and I happily took on the task. Next thing I knew, I had actually found meaning and purpose through this horrible disease that I thought was going to kill me.
I finished chemotherapy in April of 2010, mere weeks before Relay for Life. In June, I had quit my cushy job, was getting separated from my husband, and was starting over in a new city. I worked with a new nonprofit organization in Wilmington, called Women of Hope, as the Communications Director. Through this organization, I was given the opportunity to participate in many fundraisers and support groups for women with cancer. I modeled for the first time in my life on a runway in front of about 200 people. I attended monthly support and educational meetings. I also ran my first, and probably last, half marathon.
I am now getting close to finishing graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. I am working toward a Masters degree in Public Administration, which will allow me to help build up and work with other nonprofit organizations that are helping those in need. At present, I work for various nonprofits in the Cape Fear region, focusing on building their capacity to continue to function through education and coordination, despite this time of economic difficulty. I have dedicated my life to helping others who truly need help; now that I know what it’s like to need help, myself.
I still have days where I am reminded that I had cancer, and may again someday. I still have days of anger at the scar from the port on my chest, or at the neuropathy still occasionally present in my hands and feet, or at the fact that I may never be able to bear children. I am angry that I still owe money to hospitals and doctors, and probably will for the rest of my life. I am angry that cancer has the power to steal people’s lives from them with little warning, and for little reason. I will never get over the “why me?” and the “what did I do to deserve this?” kind of questions, but I can roll with the punches and accept my new life for what it is, and gain inspiration from my challenges.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I knew no one with cancer. Cancer was one of those things, a white noise in the background that I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with, but I did deal with it, and for that opportunity I am grateful. I am grateful for the strong people I have met, and I look forward to continuing to give support and strength to those experiencing a similar crisis in their lives.
Some people associate cancer with negative words like evil, fight, and even tragedy. I associate it with other kinds of words, like hope, freedom, inspiration, and life. Yes, life. Cancer gave me my life back. It reminded me that my life is mine and I am to do with it exactly what I want – not what I am supposed to do, or what someone else thinks I should do. Without cancer, I would still be married, unhappy, overworked, and unfulfilled. I am grateful for the second chance I have been given and will spend my life helping other survivors see cancer as a challenge, not a defeat.
I want to help those who want to DO SOMETHING with the cards they have been dealt, to make other people’s lives better. I am finishing a graduate degree in Nonprofit Management, so that I can be a part of making this world a better place – not simply living in it. And guess what? None of this would have happened, had I not been, yes, inspired and, yes, liberated by cancer. I want to encourage the survivors in this room to do the same, and to help others see that cancer is not always a death sentence. It can present the chance for inspiration, liberation, and hope; it can be a light at the end of a tunnel.