Doris Cardwell received a life-changing diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer in 2007. While undergoing treatment, she co-founded a mentor program for the cancer center treating her. She also created community events to educate, encourage and empower people regarding cancer. Doris was the first Survivorship Community Outreach Liaison for her local cancer center. She is an advocate, educator and encourager on issues facing cancer survivors. Doris is a wife, mother, empty nester, survivor of life and lover of all things coffee. An avid speaker and blogger, she is available at www.justdoris.com.
Cancer can both open and close doors. It can make life feel crowded and foreign. It can bring out both the best and the worst in people, much like being on a crowded elevator can. As it creates space in our life it can also push us out of our comfort zones but it doesn't change who we are.
Have you ever been in a crowded elevator when one more person tries to fit in?
You see them coming and think, NO, NO, NO, quick, close the door!
Just as some "nice" person declares they will hold the door because there's plenty of room. "Oh, no problem," they say as you roll your eyes back into your head!
Here comes said person with wait...what is that? ...a big suitcase and some shopping bags behind them. Did I mention your space was already being invaded by the "non-spatially aware" person in front of you? Oh, and it's 95 degrees out and someone must have forgotten about their armpits this morning.
Why are we talking about closing doors, strangers in our personal space and armpit funk on a cancer blog?
Because that's what having cancer can feel like at times.
Cancer can bring all kinds of people and things into your personal space. Some mean well and do well, others......make you want to close the door quick.
In the twelve years I have been a survivor I have met the kindest, coolest, most caring people. I've met people who go above and beyond anything you would think to ask or imagine.
I have also seen some of the rankest and most insensitive people and things. An example, one day I was handing out flyers for a survivor event in our community. A lady said, “I'm not interested,” which was fine. Then she went on to say people just need to get over it — like I did, twice!
“OOOMMM,” deep breath. I said, "Well ma'am, then you must be one of the fortunate ones. Some of us have long-lasting effects that prevent us from doing that. So we are trying to educate, encourage and empower people with this event." I might have said a few other things under my breath, but that was all I said to her.
My least favorite comment that I get a lot is "did they take off your breast?" asked even by strangers in the grocery store when they see my compression sleeve. Sometimes I just want to reply, "I don't know, did they take off your manners?" Talk about being in my personal space.
Cancer creates space for itself in our lives just like that last person in the elevator. We don't have the option to say, oh, wait, no more room for you here. Don't have time for you in my life this month, see you later! We have to adjust and adapt the best we can. My diagnosis felt like being sent to another planet. I was not used to being in so many doctor's offices, hospitals and appointments. I had to learn a new language and a new way of doing things.
I love watching the television show “New Amsterdam.” What I love about it is the mission of the medical director, Max, to provide care to everyone. Not just care, but the best care possible, regardless of ability to pay. I love that no matter what comes at him he often asks, “How can I help?” I love that he thought he could just keep on going while cancer danced around the edge of his day. However, that did not work out for him for very long.
The reality for this television character, and for many of us, is cancer makes its own space. Whether we want it to or not. If we are long-term survivors, we may go weeks or months without it invading our space. If we are missing body parts, dealing with chronic pain or the emotional strain of cancer, it may be daily. I remember a friend of mine who had cancer all over her abdomen. She shared how much she hated changing her colostomy bag — not something she could get away from.
I have had to make many adjustments since cancer created its own space in my life. I have learned to educate myself, speak up and speak out to educate others. I did a TedX Talk last year, which was really uncomfortable. I am glad I did it even though when it went live, I felt naked and scared because it was out there and I couldn't take it back.
Having had cancer has opened doors, it has closed doors. It crowds my life at times, and at times it stinks. Through it all I have learned that I need to step back and just go where it takes me. Next month that will be to Washington, D.C. to learn and speak to lawmakers on policy issues — something I never thought I would do.
Wherever you are in your life with cancer know this: It's okay to be where you are. If doors open or close, if life feels stinky or crowded remember cancer is something you have, not who you are.