If you’ve ever been diagnosed with a serious illness, you might feel like your body betrayed you. That’s how I felt when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’d been the poster girl for healthy living: I ate fresh fruits and vegetables, grilled chicken, no fast food or sugar, a glass of wine here and there; lots of exercise, regular checkups and yearly mammograms. When the shock wore off, my fear turned to anger and then to depression.
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora Ephron
I remember crying hysterically in PetSmart’s parking lot, unable to go in and buy dog food or get on the highway and drive home. It had been three months since my diagnosis, and the full impact of what it meant to have breast cancer had finally hit me. In addition to fear, depression and disbelief, I was struggling with overwhelming concepts like life, death and self-image—would my husband love me with my scars—not to mention the fear of recurrence. And then, the most amazing thing happened.
Eight days after my mastectomy, my girlfriends and I went to a Sting concert. I wore white linen and my turkey basters, the drains that dangled from rubber tubing, surgically attached to where my breast had been. Our seats were in the last row. Carrot Top could have been lip-syncing Sting songs for all we knew. As I looked around at the thousands of women in the audience, statistically I knew one out of eight would be diagnosed with breast cancer.
I studied them, women from teenagers to 60-somethings and thinking: “She has it and doesn’t know it. She’s going to have it. She’s had it.” But in that moment, I realized that life didn’t get any better than this. I had a husband who loved me; I was alive, with my two best friends since high school, singing and clapping as though my world hadn’t been condensed onto a pathology slide two inches long and three-quarters of an inch wide.
In that moment, I realized I’d crossed a bridge I never wanted to cross. One of the things I feared most had already happened. I could be angry and fearful, or I could make a conscious decision not to let my diagnosis define me. Cancer may have taken my breast, but it would not take my spirit and my will. In that moment I wanted to tell every woman there to keep singing; keep laughing; keep living; to pull from each moment the things they wanted to remember. To savor them; laugh at them and to live their lives deliberately and intentionally.
I know from experience that’s easier said than done, but when faced with that thing we fear most, we must find a way to let go of anger and fear. While we can never return to the days before a serious diagnosis, we can use it to sharpen our resolve to survive.