'Ugly Blessings’ and Blooming From Cancer’s Lessons


After being diagnosed with a rare cancer, I met some amazing people and have a new appreciation for life.

In August of 2007, I was diagnosed with epithelial myoepithelial cancer in the right parotid gland in my neck. It came as quite a shock on many levels, especially since salivary gland cancers are extremely rare. In the U.S., they make up less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year.

However, I was fortunate that the tumor I’d felt was in an early stage and I had the gift of an amazing surgeon and, later, radiation oncologist.

Seven weeks of Monday-through-Friday radiation took a toll on my body. I lost 25 pounds because horrific sores in my mouth made it extremely difficult to even swallow the nutritious smoothies my husband, Steve, made for me.

I regained my taste buds after three months and my weight began to return to normal. Joy of joys, I went back to work, and was loving my time teaching early elementary children to read. I was able to complete a 40-year career as an educator before retiring in 2013.

Fast forward to Dec. 31, 2022, the 15th anniversary of the day that Steve and I, together, rang the bell at the radiation oncology center, marking the end of my treatment. It was an arduous, painful journey that took a lot out of me physically, emotionally, and, sometimes, spiritually.

There were many lessons learned, some easier than others, over the course of my diagnosis, treatment and recovery. However, two stand out.

I read a quote once by Christine Cain, “When you are in a dark place, you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried. Perhaps you’ve been planted. Bloom.”

That rings true for me. During my journey, I discovered the cancer support group, Imerman Angels, an organization that matches fighters with survivors of the same or similar cancer as well as former caregivers with current caregivers. My mentor angel, Tim, was a true angel sent from on high. He listened, he supported, he shared strategies he’d used to deal with extreme dryness and lesions in the mouth, nausea, etc. He also was able to normalize my roller-coaster emotions having experienced most of them himself.

At the time of our introduction, Tim was a survivor in the double digits (I can’t remember exactly anymore) and that fact alone was a beacon of light, leading me more confidently on the road to my own recovery.

It turns out that I had only been temporarily “buried.” I“bloomed” into a new chapter as an Imerman Angel mentor myself, paying forward the gift of a listening ear provided by someone who has been "there." This is a bond that surpasses many other relationships and is a priceless blessing.

A young man I came to know through his cancer blog was Miles Levin. He succumbed to a rare form of pediatric cancer, but his insights and observations during his journey were amazing, especially since he was still in high school when diagnosed.

Miles called cancer “an ugly blessing.” Indeed. I wish I’d known that during my own ugly part of the experience. Nonetheless, the last 15 years have been filled with blessings that are even more precious and cherished precisely because I’d walked in the fire, leaving me with an amazing new perspective on life and living. I’m still here, healthy, living a full life with my husband and extended family and friends, some of whom I’d never have met, if it not for mytime in a dark place.

This post was written and submitted by Cecilia Vettraino Strine. The article reflects the views of Cecilia Vettraino Strine and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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