Today is my 5-year cancerversary. It’s the big one, the one where they say your risk drops by a significant percent. Breast cancer differs slightly in that it’s the cancer that keeps on giving; it has a tendency to ignore the status quo established by the medical field and just do its own dang thing, recurring anywhere from 1 year after diagnosis to 25+ years later (ya know, just to keep you on your toes 🙄). So, you never quite feel like you’re out of the woods, but it’s still a good sign to have reached 5 years post-diagnosis. For many people, this bodes well for their future, and today, I got to join that camp.
Before I was diagnosed, my attitude towards cancer was very one dimensional: “eff you”. It had taken my father, my aunt, and one of my friends, and I hated it so much that I had a “f*ck cancer” bracelet I wore 24/7. I still hate cancer, I hate what it’s done to me and my loved ones and our lives and to the lives of so many others, but my relationship with it now is so much more complex. (Side note: Did I just say I have a relationship with cancer?? I guess it does feel like that.)
I woke up full of excitement today and feeling like it was my birthday, and it sort of is in a way; it marks the start of my new life. Because something crazy happened when I was diagnosed: my life changed, completely, but not in the ways you would expect. Okay, exactly the ways you would expect, but also in other, totally unexpected ways. Those who have been through this would likely have seen it coming, but little ol’ 28-year-old me had no idea what was on its way to her.
The day I was diagnosed is absolutely, without a doubt tied for the worst day of my life along with its buddy, the day my dad died. The difference though is that I was a lot older, a lot more aware of the situation, and much more practised at spiraling into anxiety and dread and worst-case scenarios. As an added bonus, I was alone when I received the news, because every medical professional I had seen along the way to my diagnosis (with the exception of my family doctor) had lulled me into a false sense of security by being confident that it would be nothing and by being abnormally vocal to me, the patient, about this confidence. They usually hedge their bets a little more, and I wish they had.
Sitting there, alone and falling into the gaping maw that is the start of a cancer journey, I had no idea what came next or what to expect. For the first time in my life, my brain wasn’t doing what it normally does thanks to my fairly A-type personality: trying to foresee the future and plan for every possible event. It couldn’t comprehend what I had just heard, let alone try and think of something to do about it, and so everything was just one giant blank.
When I think about that day, part of me often wishes that it could go back in time and sit with that Rebecca and tell her all about the path she was about to embark on, to prepare her for the challenging, but more importantly, to share with her the incredible, beautiful, surprising good that she was about to experience too.
Because cancer, and any of life’s massive challenges really, does bring good with it too. There is so much that I have to be grateful for that I wouldn’t have achieved, experienced, gained, or have without cancer. And man, are there a lot of them, and all of them completely unexpected by that terrified, frozen, numb kid sitting in that doctor’s office. As I wrote at some point in year three, no matter how awful, challenging, draining, and life-altering an obstacle might be, there is always something good it will bring too.
I think this is one of the most important things that I learned from my cancer experience, and one of the things that I know is going to serve me most as I continue my journey into life after cancer: there will always be a light side to the dark. Very likely, that light won’t be visible at the beginning, when things are at their darkest and there is too much pain and chaos to see beyond the next minute let alone to months or years from where you are. But, with time, you will find the ways that your past challenges are serving you now. Whether they have equipped you with knowledge, tools, or good habits; have brought wonderful people into your life; have given you strength, perseverance, or a more positive mindset; or whether they simply provide the evidence that you have gotten through difficult things before and so you will again, your challenges can serve your present and your future in so many ways. One day, you will be able to look back on that time and say, “As terrible as it was, I’m so glad I was able to get _____ out of it”. You may not be able to see it yet, but I promise, the light is coming.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you will be well-acquainted with my posts that I call “Lessons Cancer Taught Me”. At some point in year one post-diagnosis, I started realising some of the things that I was learning through my experience with cancer. I started writing them down and then sharing them, fully expecting them to run out at some point. Well, they haven’t yet, and each year, I have continued to record them and share them. For me, these lessons are a massive part of that light that counterbalances all of the dark of cancer. They are things I am so grateful to have learned early in my life so that I can continue to benefit from their wisdom for the rest of my long and happy existence.
And I have cancer to thank for them, which sure does make it more difficult to hate it quite as much as before. That’s probably the most astonishing, unexpected result of the last 5 years. Who ever thought I would hate cancer less after experiencing it myself?
Today, on my 5-year cancerversary, I wanted to share the 5 most meaningful lessons cancer taught me, one from each of the 5 years of my new, post-cancer life. I hope that they resonate with you, whether you have had cancer or not. I hope that they bring you whatever it is you need today. I hope they help you heal. I hope they lead you to some lessons or positive growth of your own. I hope they make you smile. Because they have definitely done all of these things and more for me.
Happy Healing ❤️
Lessons Cancer Taught Me: 5 Years in Review
Cancer taught me that there are way too many things in life that don’t really matter that we care way too much about and many more that should matter more to us that we don’t care enough about. I now find myself in a state of gratitude at some point every. single. day. That’s the way it should be. I teared up yesterday driving up the escarpment and looking out over all the trees that were so, so green and so, so beautiful. I’m alive to see it, and I’m healthy enough to be driving myself around to do errands. I am so thankful I can run errands, and who ever thought I would say that??
Cancer taught me that I don’t have to be sick for people to care about me; more importantly, I don’t have to be sick to be deserving of their care and concern. Many of us feel unworthy of people’s love and time and attention unless it’s in response to a crisis, unless we have a “really good reason” to receive it. We don’t believe that simply existing and being ourselves make us deserving of love and affection. I realised that on some level, I felt guilty about receiving love and support unless it was in reaction to something huge like cancer, that I was somehow bad or lazy if I accepted it under any other less-critical circumstances, that I was unworthy of it without a crisis. This simply isn’t true. Cancer taught me that I am worthy of love and support ALWAYS, just the way I am. And this, quite quietly, without me really noticing until I reflected on it recently, pushed me to become the most authentic version of myself yet. Become might not be the right word here, because I have always had that person inside of me; reveal might be better. Cancer has allowed me to reveal my most authentic self. It’s a scary thing to do. I was a serial people pleaser and still find myself contorting to fit what I think other people will like the best, the version of me that will most easily be accepted and fit in. But cancer is scarier than the thought of not being accepted, and when you have overcome that, you don’t want to waste the time you have being anyone other than deeply, truly you, and it stops being so scary. Going through cancer gave me confidence and belief in myself. If I can conquer cancer, then I can be vulnerable and authentic with the world, and I can be worthy of all the love given to that beautiful human with or without a crisis.
Cancer taught me the biggest secret I have encountered yet: that we can do literally whatever we want with our lives. We love to put boundaries and limits on what we can and cannot do. Often these are based on what other people’s expectations are. We don’t want to disappoint, we want to fit in, we want success and think there is only one way to achieve that or only one way to define that. We feel pressured to stay on the trajectory we started simply because we have invested time and energy and likely money, even if we have discovered along the way that we don’t like it. You can change your mind. You can change it again. You can do more than one thing. You don’t have to have one single career. You can have a second career, and then a third. You can pursue “hobbies” more seriously. You can grow or mend relationships, visit new places, move somewhere you’ve always wanted to live. You are allowed to leave the well-travelled ruts of your life if you feel called to. In fact, that feeling is the best indication that stepping out of them is exactly what you SHOULD do. So, don’t stop dreaming. Dreaming about the future is like setting your intention to be here for that future. It’s telling the universe that you plan on being here to see those dreams come to fruition. It’s taking ownership of your life and what you plan on doing with it. It’s telling cancer that it will not win.
Cancer taught me the importance of taking every opportunity you can to perform small acts of kindness. The day I was diagnosed, I was in a daze. I had been crying for the last hour and I was trying to find my way out of the hospital without really being able to focus on what I was doing. I was approaching the machine where you pay for parking, and a young guy was walking up to it at the same time. He took one look at my face and just gestured for me to go ahead first, the compassion very clear in his eyes even though he didn’t know what exactly was wrong (but in a hospital, it can only be so many things, and all of them bad). I think about that often and feel such a deep gratitude for his offer, but also for the compassion that I could feel emanating from him; it usually brings a tear to my eye. He made that moment just a tiny bit easier for me by letting me get out of there faster. He probably doesn’t even remember that moment, or if he does, I’m sure he doesn’t think that I recall that moment often, but I do. And that just goes to show that you never know how you might be positively impacting not just someone’s day, but their life.
Regret and anxiety; two things that cancer patients and survivors know a lot about. When we start learning about the things that could have contributed to our diagnosis, it’s quite common and normal to feel regret that we didn’t know better sooner, when there was still time to prevent it in the first place. We can’t blame ourselves for getting cancer of course, but regret can creep in about the contributing factors we wish we had known to address. And of course, anxiety over the future of our health is a constant companion for many. There are good days and bad, some when we feel it’s presence and some when we don’t, but it’s incredibly hard to completely and permanently shake the feeling that we are a ticking time bomb. All that being said, thanks to cancer, I have also become increasingly aware of the fact that no matter how much I regret not knowing how to better support my health in the past, I can’t change what has already happened, and that no matter how much I worry about the future, I can’t change what is going to happen. What has been, is, and what will be, will be. Cancer has taught me that what I can change is what I do with this moment, today, and how I want to live the rest of my life. I can support my health now, and I can work on being present instead of always dwelling in the what if’s of the future. So, take a big, deep breath, and try as much as possible to let these feelings go. Breathe them out, and breathe love and joy in. I like to actually visualise them leaving with my breath and the good stuff entering with my breath. Some days this is super easy, some days this is super hard, but whatever type of day I’m having, just trying always makes me feel even a little better, and that’s a win 😊
One final note before I head off to celebrate this day. A massive, huge, from-the-bottom-of-my-heart THANK YOU. Thank you to every single person who did anything, big or tiny, to help me get to this point. I literally could not have done it without the love, support, and community of my family, my friends, my healthcare team, my support group, and all of the incredible patients, survivors, and thrivers I have met along the way. And to you, every person who has read one of my blogs, joined my Facebook group, or otherwise been an invaluable member of the Solis community. Sharing with all of you has given me so much, and you are so, so appreciated ❤️