My 16 Years as a Breast Cancer Survivor
by Ann Jillian
I am a breast cancer survivor. I have been blessed with a second chance at life. Sixteen years have come and gone since I heard the words. “This is a cancer situation.” Sixteen years that sometimes feel double that, and other times, not quite sixteen minutes. Years filled with challenge, sorrow, deep love and great joy. lt has been a time of exuberant celebration and profound learning.
Time can gently smooth the harsh edge of the undesirable diagnosis, but it cannot dull the awe that will forever engulf my senses whenever I seriously consider cancer’s occurrence in my life. I endured much to reach the desired prize of being ‘”cancer-free” and from the moment of my highly publicized surgery to the present, I have been ever-mindful of the gift of each day and “living my reward.”
As anyone whose life has been affected by cancer knows, it is a family affair. My husband, Andy, a former Chicago police sergeant, was the first to know in my immediate family. He reacted as he would have in any life-threatening situation: directly and aggressively. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, nobody quits the mob!” His humorous efforts to lift the heavy load I was carrying had an underlying serious and determined promise. Quietly, we cried in each other’s arms. There is great healing in a shared tear.
Former first lady Betty Ford, one of the first to publicly speak out about her own battle with breast cancer called my hospital room the night before my surgery to say, “It’s OK to cry, but not for too long.” Wise and encouraging words from inspirational people, all of whom had faced their own challenges, served as a compass, guiding me with “loving nudges” in the directions that would best facilitate healthy overall recovery leading to survival. (Survival meaning not exclusively life, but growth as well.) And while it’s possible to make the steps through to survival alone, it’s infinitely easier with the reassurance of those who have “been there.”
Time can gently smooth the harsh edge of the undesirable diagnosis, but it cannot dull the awe that will forever engulf my senses whenever I seriously consider cancer’s occurrence in my life.
To this day, I continue to receive and exchange support from various sources. Through the mail, from women who approach me on the street, in malls, at my lecture programs, and always from my family and faith. The message I have formulated from this host of empathetic support is, “Accept, adjust, and move forward.” I found this deduction made so much sense for the process of my recovery.
Acceptance cleared the way for adjustment. It was, by no means, to be mistaken for giving up. Rather, it was recognition and acknowledgment of what had happened, allowing me to focus on appropriate treatment and the task of getting well. Adjustment covered a wide area. From the process of regaining the range of movement in my arms, to my wardrobe, to dealing with the personal and professional perceptions of others – real or imagined, and, of course. coming face to face with my mortality.
Survival, however, brings with it a responsibility to share and quietly, audibly, and with the written word.
As for the effects cancer would have on my relationship with my husband, I soon found that our “bottom line” was solid and this event would not alter that. Our faith, love, and good sense of humor would get us through.
The rest of my professional associations and friendships were of a varied nature. Some were warmhearted, close and very protective while others were more distant. But whatever motivated the resulting outcomes, I knew I could not presume to control people’s perceptions. I could only control my own and carry on with my life in the best way I knew how. My dear mother’s words took control: “I had breast cancer. I got better. and you will too.” Moving forward, for me, could not have been done without my faith. My beliefs were not changed, but validated.
Cancer did not take away the important things in life or the promise of eternity. lt could not, and did not stop my work or creativity. Survival, however, brings with it a responsibility to share and quietly, audibly, and with the written word. I’ve tried to do my part. There can be life at the end of the cancer journey: the prerequisite is early detection and swift medical action.
It is no surprise to me that an admirable publication such as Coping® exists for those of us who have felt the presence of cancer in our lives and have also learned the healing power of support. I sincerely hope that my words may be a “loving nudge” to someone who is in need of direction from someone who has “been there.”
Ann Jillian is a motivational speaker who speaks on “Life, Health, and the Joys of Motherhood,” a three-time Emmy nominee and a Golden Globe award-winning actress and singer. On June 3, National Cancer Survivors Day®, Ann appeared on CNN in an exclusive interview to promote the event. Find out more about her at AnnJillian.com
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2001.