Cancer can make you braver than you ever thought you were.
I have common variable immune deficiency (CVID), a genetic condition that keeps me from effectively fighting viral and bacterial infections and also, it turns out, cancer. People with CVID have an increased risk of developing many cancers, especially lymphoma; estimates vary, but are as high as 18 percent lifetime risk for developing lymphoma, according to a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Immunology. With immune deficiency on one side of my family, and a history of colon cancer on the other side, I had lived for years with fear of developing cancer.
And then I was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer at age 50, with no prior family history. Breast cancer? That wasn’t in my plan! My boys were 22 and 12 at the time. And then my biggest fear turned into whether I would live to guide my youngest son into adulthood.
My cancer was HER2+, and so my treatment included a year of chemo, surgery and radiation — the full monte. People told me I was brave, but I said I was just doing what I needed to live.
When I was done with treatment and was declared “in remission” (some doctors even dare to say “cured”), I realized maybe I had been brave. It took courage to hide my fears from my sons. It took tenacity to keep their lives as normal as possible. And it took strength only a parent can muster to make it to as many of my sons’ events as I could, even when I felt awful.
After my treatments were over and we were on vacation, my youngest son wanted to try parasailing. My family was pressuring me to try it too. The thing is, I’m terrified of heights. The peer pressure was relentless, but I was holding my ground in refusing. Then I stopped and thought, “Wait, I faced cancer and won; I can go parasailing!”
The ship captain gave me a signal I could use if I wanted to come down early. My son held my hand, and we were up, up and away. My son distracted me by narrating our journey, and held my hand tight as we went 500 feet up in the air, tethered to tiny boat in the bay. The view was breathtaking. We saw the beaches in a whole new way. We watched dolphins playing in the clear water. Before I knew it, we were reeled back in and the ride was over. I survived cancer, and I survived parasailing, and thus I conquered my fear of heights!
Next, I took a class on orchestra conducting. I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself in to when I signed up, but I found out that we would be conducting a quartet of musicians from a professional orchestra in our final class. And they would do exactly what we directed them to do! I wanted to skip the last class (and some did), but I said to the class, “oh, come on it will be fun! I have no orchestra experience, but I beat cancer. I can do this and so can you!” The musicians did, in fact, do exactly what my hands told them to do, but we all laughed as I learned to direct them. I learned how powerful orchestra conductors feel, and I faced, and overcame, my fear of performing live.
After that experience, I signed up to facilitate a class: retired teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, all with exacting standards. Not only did I agree to present the class, but I agreed to accept their blunt feedback! It turned out 55 people registered! From the outset I told the students I wasn’t an expert, but had personal experience I wanted to share. I made it clear I wanted to hear everyone’s perspective. Each class brought healthy debate and dialog, and I felt encouraged and appreciated by the students—I had a great time! This allowed me to stare down my fear of public speaking, and I’ve been asked to facilitate the class again.
After conquering all of these fears, I’ve actually found myself contemplating sky diving. My husband would be absolutely shocked if I ever tell him I want to try it. But, after all, it’s not cancer!