Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
Let’s face it. A cancer diagnosis is a massive kick in the gut. We don’t walk around thinking about or preparing for the phone call where we first hear the words “you have cancer.” So when that call comes, it’s a knockout punch. Personally, I felt as if I was standing about two inches tall, staring up at my life from the ground. I felt like I was an action figure in a video game, in the very last round facing the evil villain that somehow stands 25 feet tall and larger than life. All I had was one measly weapon and maybe a few bonus energy surges. How could I possibly think I had a chance at beating this supervillain and becoming champion? In this case, the villain was cancer, and I felt defeated before I even had a chance.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer 9 years ago at the age of 32. I lived in a dream world where only people with family histories of breast cancer ended up getting it and no one under the age of 40 could possibly get breast cancer. I mean they don’t even allow mammograms until you turn 40, so there is no possible way I could get it so young. Oh, to be that naïve again! Well, the lump did form. The mammogram before 40 did have to happen. The call with those three terrible words did come in. And the punch in the gut really hurt.
So, what to do? All I knew at that point was how the world looked from the ground. It was an ugly and terrifying site at that point. This was my lowest point in the cancer journey. Talk about feeling lost? I felt smaller than small and that cancer villain dangled my life from its hooked pinky finger like a feather.
The decent news is that you can pick yourself up off the ground and change the view. It’s tough and scary and frustrating and so on and so on. It is, however, possible. I took the approach of letting my cancer diagnosis change my viewpoint. Granted, this happened after lots of crying, screaming and angry tears. I had to get past the “woe is me” moments and that took some time. But when I finally dried my eyes, I realized that I could take the cancer diagnosis and see my life from a different perspective. I literally felt like I was rebuilding my life from the ground up. I hated the words “new normal,” so I had to take a different approach in which I knew wherever I went as I moved forward, I was leaving that old me behind.
I started doing things I never thought I would do and frankly, I did it because I didn’t know how much time I had left. See, the real deal is none of us truly know this. We have no idea how much time we have left, but a cancer diagnosis kicks those thoughts into high gear.
This is the part where I build my life again. I decided it was time to change jobs, move across state lines, build a bucket list and start ticking things off, take a few chances in life, start writing, volunteering and building my own non-profit. I would have done none of this before I got sick. I just kept going along with the flow of my former life, which in all fairness did make me happy too. Those are some of the big things, but everything doesn’t have to be that life-changing in order for you to get up from the ground.
I didn’t say yes to everything or everyone and I didn’t feel bad about it. I lost my fear of missing out and didn’t do anything because I felt I had to. I distanced myself from the toxic people in my life. I added more of the little things into my life that I absolutely loved, like reading books, spending time with family, watching TV, sneaking in some junk food – the list goes on and on. I was a workaholic, so finding time for something like TV was impossible, simply because I made it impossible. After cancer, I made sure to find time for these simple “impossible” things.
That’s how I rebuilt my life. Getting up from the kick in the gut is nothing more than a mindset. You can decide to let that cancer villain win by giving up, or you can take that challenge and kick it back. It’s a long way up from the ground floor, but if you open your eyes a bit, you will find that stairway back up.