Debbie’s discovery of cancer’s gifts

Today's guest author, Debbie Woodbury, founder Where We Go Now

It is such a joy to host today’s guest author, Debbie Woodbury, founder of Where We Go Now, an online community for cancer survivors. Our paths crossed on twitter when I discovered a kindred spirit in Debbie and as you read on through her post, you will see just why.

My Hard Fought Discovery of Cancer’s Gifts

At no time during my cancer journey did I ever ask the question, “Why me?”  My fifty years of life “BC” (before cancer) perhaps created a fatalist, but it didn’t ring true to me to even pose the question.  With five BC years of miscarriages and infertility under my belt, I knew life could be cruel.  Knowing that, how could I feign surprise when evidence of that fact arose again?

I thus approached my cancer journey as an experienced traveler down life’s sometimes bumpy path.  In my cancer numbness, it must have been infertility’s muscle memory carrying me through each day, doing what needed to be done, and barely managing fear.  Throughout our years in the infertility trenches, however, we had a secret weapon.  The certainty of the goal – the gift of giving birth to a child – was the focus that made all the rest of it possible.

Cancer didn’t play fair, however, because it presented no such focus.  I submitted to endless testing, surgeries, and long disability periods, but I could find no goal to hang onto inside cancer’s swirling tornado.  Of course, I could have focused on the fact that I wasn’t going to die, but I was too overwhelmed by living.

After my surgery I was lucky to be cured of my non-invasive breast cancer, but I couldn’t for the life of me picture myself healed.  My plastic surgeon was confounded.  I remember the look he gave me when I asked him what we were going for with my reconstruction.   He obviously saw a work in progress, but I saw only damage.  And, if I couldn’t picture a healed body, I certainly couldn’t picture a healed psyche.  Where was I going now after cancer treatment?  What was I supposed to get out of all this suffering?

Overwhelmed by cancer’s losses – isolation, fear, body image issues, lack of control, mortality, my family’s suffering – kept me in a very bad place.  Weekly oncology therapy sessions were the only way I managed to put one foot in front of the other.

And then, something amazing happened.  About nine months after my mastectomy, I was startled to realize I was keeping a tally in my head of the changes cancer was bringing me.  Although I was excruciatingly aware of the losses, I was begrudgingly recognizing gifts.  When I could ignore the gifts no longer, I decided to write them down side by side with the losses.

The losses were obvious, but there were a surprising number of gifts.  Introspection, discovering yoga and meditation, making new friends, becoming aware of the present moment, learning to say “yes” to myself, and writing – just to name a few.

The missing goal – the gifts of cancer – was staring me right in the face.  Eventually, my Gifts and Losses list gave birth to a website.  I created as a community for people who want to talk about life beyond cancer, focusing of course on cancer’s many gifts.  With every entry to my Gifts and Losses and Community Gifts and Losses lists, and every blog post I write, I am still amazed at the richness of lives lived beyond cancer.

When I started this journey, I never would have believed that cancer came bearing gifts.   There was no vision of a perfect pink or blue bundle to pull me forward.   But time, distance and therapy helped me recognize the truism of infertility in the reality of cancer.  I would never want to go through infertility again, but I could never trade the process which brought me my children.

I now know the same about cancer.  I would never, never want to go through cancer again, and I will never say cancer itself is a gift.  The Gifts and Losses list taught me, however, that I could not trade the process which brought me cancer’s gifts.  It is exactly because of those gifts that I now understand Survival > Existence.

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