by Gail Presnell-Jones
I can’t be the only person in the world who was already at what they thought was the lowest point in their life when their cancer diagnosis came along. Surely I’m not the only survivor who had been waylaid by life: a job loss, financial troubles, death, divorce, or any combination of the mud the cosmos sometimes slings at us. There must be other people out there who were lying in the fetal position at the bottom of a well of shock and despair, crying “This cannot be my life” when the bottom dropped out and they plummeted to a new low of lows. I can’t be the only person who fought cancer and will never say “Well, in the end, it was a gift.”
When I received my last Herceptin injection, after 12 months of fighting stage II breast cancer, I walked out of the oncologist’s office and promptly found myself right where I’d been a year earlier – depressed. It’s easy to clear your mind of other troubles and focus on fighting a disease that demands so much of your energy. But not very many people talk about what happens after. After you’re declared cancer-free but still face other staggering life challenges – only now you get to add the possibility of a recurrence to the mish-mash of your day-to-day existence. No one seems to talk about the difficulty of dragging yourself out of bed every morning, wondering if it’s even worth the effort.
I will never write a glowing treatise about how I am grateful I had cancer.
I sometimes had periods of hope. I read magazines for inspiration, watched documentaries (often in my jammies in the middle of the afternoon), and searched online for other people’s stories. But that only made me feel worse. So many survivors, upbeat and smiling, saying how, in the end, their cancer was a blessing.
But I hated my life. Even more since I now got to add “cancer survivor” to my personal list of descriptors: unemployed, unemployable, broke, broken, hopeless.
It scared me when I started to forget the dynamic woman I had been before my world imploded. It scared me so much that I started to write down memories. The stories of my dreams and goals and the gorgeous life I had once worked so hard to create. Writing filled the long afternoons of boredom and the evil ether of dark nights – half-awake, half-asleep, where every agony was magnified and every blessing forgotten.
Six months later, I stopped scribbling and realized I held a novel in bloom. I connected the dots, filled in the blanks, and then sat down and read my life through, crying … but smiling too.
The next week, I borrowed a friend’s bike and took off for a little spin around the neighborhood. It was a hot and humid day, and the scenery was uninspiring, but there was a breeze in my newly sprouted dark curly hair. (It used to be long and wheat colored – a visual confirmation that I was not the woman I used to be.) But the breeze did feel good.
And so I biked. Almost every day, I’d take off for an hour, and then an hour and a half, and then two hours. My hair grew longer, my shoulders bronzed, and my legs got stronger. I wrote a second book and started a third.
On a whim, I contacted a local newspaper to see if they would be interested in a food column. They accepted, and paid me $40 for my first article. I got highlights in my inky hair and looked – just a little bit – like me again.
I will never write a glowing treatise about how I am grateful I had cancer. I will never see the demolition of my old life as one door closing so that a window could open. I miss the old, carefree me, the naïve woman who somehow still believed that bad things only happened to other people. She was a giver of charity and sympathy, not a receiver.
But I did learn that I love to write, and biking makes me feel like I can fly. And that, I suppose, is a gift.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Gail Presnell-Jones is a breast cancer survivor living in Valrico, FL.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.