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Overcoming Cancer Helped Me Step Out of My Comfort Zone

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After cancer, I finally went on a cruise and allowed myself to fight through my fears, which felt so freeing.

woman with a brown pixie cut and pink lipstick. A breast cancer survivor discusses how cancer's lessons freed her from fears.

In a few months, I’ll have survived cancer for 10 years. When I was first diagnosed, I thought I’d die shortly thereafter, but that’s not what happened. I fought hard and survived!

I’d love to say that chapter of my life was completely closed, but I know it never will be because cancer can come back when you least expect it. But I’ve learned, you can’t live your life in the “what ifs.” You have to live your life to the fullest. Cancer taught me that lesson, and I’m thankful for it.

I never thought I’d take a cruise. I’d always dreamed of taking one, but at 66, assumed that dream had long passed. But just a few months ago, my youngest daughter said she was going on a cruise and asked if I’d think about joining her. I was scared and excited at the same time. I wanted to go but knew it would be a challenge with my broken body. Cancer had left me with some ugly side effects, like lymphedema, and I was still dealing with body image all these years later.

My daughter kept pushing and finally, I gave in, thinking it was the opportunity of a lifetime. She told me not to worry, she’d help with all the details of trip planning. Reluctantly, I agreed to join her and had no idea how the trip would go. Somewhere deep inside, I felt this was a journey I needed to take, not only for the adventure but also for my benefit.

I knew the trip would be a challenge. Since we’d be going overseas to different countries, that meant I’d be going through several security checkpoints. Breast prostheses seem to make the security officers nervous and have caused me to be pulled aside many times over the years for a “special” pat down. I didn’t like being made a spectacle in front of strangers, so I had to weigh whether to wear my prostheses or go flat. And if I did choose to wear my prostheses, which ones would be the least problematic? The silicone ones or the molded rubber? For some reason, the silicone seemed to alert the officers, even with my TSA breast cancer notification card. Did they think I was smuggling drugs in my chest? Who knows! But the molded rubber ones didn’t seem to faze them one bit.

Pulling up some cruise packing lists from the internet, I got my suitcase together quickly. As I was packing, I also tucked in some of my lymphedema sleeves. Some days were worse than others and I never knew when my arms would swell. Weather could affect me and so could strenuous activity. Normally, I’d wear them all the time, but we’d be heading to a very warm climate and an extra layer would make me uncomfortably hot. With that in mind, I chose not to wear them unless necessary.

When the day of departure came, I was apprehensive. I wanted to go and have fun but couldn’t help being fearful.

As we approached the security area during embarkation, I assumed I’d go through the scanner and immediately be pulled aside for extra checks, but that’s not what happened. The security agents, in my assigned area, were older. As I approached, I smiled and made eye contact. They asked about my accent, and I told them I was from Georgia. Immediately, they welcomed me, and we had a friendly chat. In no time, I was through security without the normal embarrassment. My agents even agreed to let me take a photo with them. The male was 85 and the female was in her mid-70s. They were so cute! Both had joined the cruise line to supplement their income.

After settling into my balcony room, I unpacked and walked outside. Miami was huge with towering buildings everywhere. In port, there were so many ships waiting to leave. The ocean below was spectacular. Maybe this was going to be a good thing.

Later that afternoon, after all 4,000 of the ship’s guests boarded, we headed out to sea. I was thankful for the balcony room and enjoyed watching the water as we left Miami.

My daughter came to take me on a tour of the ship. I was astounded at the size and overwhelmed by all the amenities. No wonder people cruised! You could do just about anything on the ship. Our ship had many pools, hot tubs, spas, ropes courses, mini golf, theaters, restaurants, and more! I wondered why I hadn’t done this when I was younger.

Our cruise was slated to visit three different countries. Each one, though tropical, was a very different experience. When we pulled into port to visit the first country, I was taken aback by all the hecklers. We were constantly asked to buy their wares and getting away from port to a bus for an excursion was hard. I didn’t like that at all.

The second port required us to take tender boats because the sea was too rough for the ship to pull in close. I was extremely nervous about that, but figured if I survived cancer, I could do just about anything! The small boat rocked hard as we made it to shore. Fighting through my fears felt good. This country was pretty but too crowded and busy.

The third country we visited was Perfection. We enjoyed a long day on the beach sitting under palm trees enjoying a cold drink and balmy breezes. It was so relaxing and totally enjoyable.

I don’t know if I’ll cruise again. I’m not one for large crowds and constant going and doing, but I do feel good about getting out of my comfort zone. It felt nice to try something new.

I probably wouldn’t have tried cruising if it weren’t for surviving cancer. I know that seems an odd thing to say, but cancer has helped me realize the importance of growing through challenges.

It’s amazing how much freer I feel now than I did 10 years ago. Cancer really did a number on me. Right after diagnosis, I became a recluse. I didn’t want to be out in public at all. I was embarrassed to have lost my breasts and felt subhuman. Now, I’m over it. I don’t let my cancer scars dictate my life anymore. I’ve gained a newfound courage. I go where I want and do what I want.

I’ve finally figured out life is short, and you only get one chance to live it well. Even if you’re thrown a few curve balls along the way, you have to keep pushing through.

My experience with cancer was the biggest challenge of my life, but I can honestly say that 10 years later, I’m better than I was before, perhaps not physically, but definitely emotionally. I know my body’s limitations, but my mind still wants to soar.

I have a long bucket list of things to do, and I keep adding to it daily. Taking chances feels good. Thanks, cancer, for helping me become brave.

Maybe next time, I’ll be brave enough to don a swimsuit. I didn’t this trip but hope to on the next cruise. If I choose a patterned print, I can go flat without drawing attention to myself. If I choose a solid color, I’ll probably wear prostheses, but I’ll need to wear my weighted swim boobs. Any others would float and that might be embarrassing. On the other hand, the kids would probably get a kick out of seeing an unidentified floating object pass by. I can only imagine little sailors shouting, “Land ho! Thar, she blows…”

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