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The Road From Grief to Grace

by Nicole Zechella

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One week after my 30th birthday, I was told I had a large melanoma in the center of my back. The dermatologist informed me that I had an appointment for that afternoon with a surgeon to discuss the next step. My denial started as soon as I hung up the phone. Like in the movie of the week, I found myself in front of a very impressive, degreed doctor nodding on autopilot as he told me directly, clearly, quietly, “Nicole, you have cancer.”

I was floating around far away from that Pandora's Box disguised as an innocent office folder. I laughed nervously and responded, “But it's not cancer cancer?” He looked me in the eye and stated that there is only one definition of cancer and that skin is the largest organ of the body. I felt like I was drowning in fear and panic. I had no health insurance. I needed to call my parents. Finally, I stuttered the question, “Could I die?” And so my journey began.

I was living very much like a teenager rather than a young adult. I was not married, no children, bartending to pay my bills, and my only priorities were my costly dyed blond hair, my tan, and getting my ex-boyfriend back. I was drinking, smoking, and skipping meals on a regular basis with never a thought or a whisper in my mind that illness could wrap its arms around me. Therefore, I handled my diagnosis with the grief of a child, not the grace of a woman … because I wasn't a woman, not yet.

Day after day, night after night, my real self, my soul, began to emerge. I watched my hair fall out and saw courage, character, and strength grow in.

My first surgery left me with a seven-inch scar across my upper back, three-inch scars through my armpits, and holes on the sides of my ribcage where pumps were placed to drain fluid. Three weeks after my surgery, the pathology report showed that the cancer had metastasized to the left lymph nodes and the next surgery would be a complete dissection of the left axilla. I didn't know what that meant and was too scared to ask. The best decision was a year of chemotherapy, and the road of grief began.

I grieved for so many things. I grieved for my fatigue, loneliness, beauty, friends, youth, and ignorance. In the space of 90 days, my whole world changed. I was on disability, completely dependent on my family, and all I could do was watch myself disappear to the effects of chemo. Forever, I was changed, and I knew it.

My mortality lay down on me like a heavy, itchy, woolen blanket. Every night, it was my loyal companion. Most friends fell away, but the real ones stuck around. My new friends keeping me company were fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Miraculously, they brought wisdom, insight, and compassion. Day after day, night after night, my real self, my soul, began to emerge. I watched my hair fall out and saw courage, character, and strength grow in. Gone was the self-absorbed beach bunny, and in her place was someone new, but familiar.

In the year and a half of endless vulnerability, the world had become a kinder place that was filled with so many angels. I had no choice but to stand up and accept the call when cancer came knocking, but I chose to stare cancer in the eye and ask, “What are you trying to teach me? I'm here, humbled, desperate, and searching for the wisdom of this fate.” When I surrendered, I chose to hear that the time is now to change your life. I needed a real life. I needed to care and love every day, love everyone, including myself – battle scars and all.

Cancer doesn't wait for you to adjust. It is powerful; it has a mission, but so do you. Hold on to your soul, your truest self, and you will become the hero in your story. A dear friend told me in the beginning of the grief that grace and blessings would reveal themselves to me. She was so wise, one of the angels. My cancer gave me life, precious, precious, life, and I am so grateful for the gifts each day brings.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Nicole Zechella is now 31 years old and is going back to school to obtain a degree in oncology nutrition. She spends her free time riding horses, reading, and offering advice to others on the journey.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.

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