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Ten Years of Learning

by Heather Hall

Inspiration image

I celebrate a milestone this year. It is my 10-year anniversary. Not one I share with a particular man. It is mine alone to revel in. I celebrate a decade as a cancer survivor. Ten years ago, I finished a wickedly aggressive treatment for bone cancer, traded my femur and knee for titanium, and started on a very different course from the one I planned after my recent college graduation.

Life has taken many twists and turns in 10 years. From traveling the country, to losing a parent, to falling in love. From attending cancer advocacy conferences, to mentoring other survivors, to getting a clean bill of health. Life has made 10 years fly by.

As the anniversary crept up on me, I started remembering the 21-year-old young woman who walked into a doctor’s office carefree and innocent, and walked out uncertain and scared. That young woman was me, yet in many ways I feel like a different person.

Given the chance to go back in time, I wondered what I would tell that young woman who was ready to face the world, only to be knocked down by a cancer diagnosis. What advice would I give that scared, yet stubborn, woman who was determined to begin every day with a smile?

Life gets overwhelming. There are daily demands from work, family, friends. Sometimes you must take “me” time. Turn the phone off, read a magazine, take a bath, marvel at the birds and sunshine. Reconnect with yourself, even if for only an hour. The world will still need to be saved once you’re refreshed.

I even asked my oncologist if I should come in once a month for a “quick shot” of chemo, just to be safe. Was I crazy? Overreacting?

I wake up every morning and feel gratitude for being able to embrace a new day filled with potential for greatness and happiness. Too often, we hold grudges or fret about circumstances in the past, or are eager for what tomorrow may bring. We forget to appreciate the people and life we have now. So spend time with your nieces. Tell your boyfriend you love him. Read that book. Today.

My cancer diagnosis seems like a lifetime ago. Yet in quiet moments, when I am alone, I can feel every emotion and remember significant days from my cancer journey as if they happened last week. Every experience in the previous 32 years has made me who I am today, for better or worse. We can’t change the past, although we sometimes want to forget parts of it, but we can learn from it.

I am a cancer survivor. A professional with many goals. I am a daughter, sister, aunt, girlfriend. I am a leader. I can follow. Try as I might to separate my life into neatly organized compartments, all of these qualities make up one me. While one quality may take precedence at certain times, it is all of these, and the experiences that come with, that make me who I am.

I felt slightly lost when treatment ended. For more than a year, I had a routine, boring as it was. Chemo, doctor appointments, hospital stays, blood transfusions. Then it ended. No more imaginary safety net. No more doctors and nurses to protect me. My feelings of elation and freedom were countered by uncertainty and apprehension. I even asked my oncologist if I should come in once a month for a “quick shot” of chemo, just to be safe. Was I crazy? Overreacting? After my doctor gently discouraged the monthly shot, I took the hat off my bald head and looked in the mirror at the new me. I saw a young woman ready to face the world with a new outlook on life.

I am more open-minded, relaxed, and eager for adventure and new experiences. I admit I’m also a bit more impatient with petty issues, frustrated with stereotypes. I speak out at injustice. I am passionate for cancer advocacy and educating society that cancer doesn’t mean a death sentence. I have lived the cliché “life is short,” so I try not to hold back on telling someone how I feel or accepting an opportunity to try something new.

Each time I think I’ve figured out what it means to be a cancer survivor, I realize there is more to learn, more to accept, more to let go of. It is a never-ending experience, one that I have finally learned to embrace and look forward to.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Heather Hall is a bone cancer survivor living in Royal Oak, MI.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2009.