Lessons That Cancer Taught Me
by Heather Hall
This year I celebrate a special anniversary – 20 years as a cancer survivor. While it’s an anniversary that my family and friends celebrate too, it’s a milestone that only I can fully feel. And, yes, I celebrate it! Because every morning that we wake up to a new day should be cause for celebration.
Diagnosed at age 21 with osteosarcoma, my world was shaken to the core the day I walked into a clinic as a carefree, ready-to-take-on-the-world young adult and learned a tumor in my femur would make me not so invincible. My life suddenly changed course. I started treatment almost immediately, enduring aggressive chemotherapy and a surgery that replaced my femur and knee with a titanium rod.
Life has been a series of ups and downs since my diagnosis. I had to accept restrictions related to the rod in my leg, yet discovered new activities and interests. I faced unexpected side effects from chemo, yet I’ve felt gratitude for every day that cancer stays at bay. I met many other wonderful survivors, yet said goodbye to my dad and several friends because of the disease. As I embrace all that the past 20 years has taught me, I want to share a few of the important lessons I’ve learned:
♦ You’ll find your tribe.
From a cancer survivors conference in Montana, to the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC, to a random conversation in a restaurant, I have met other cancer survivors who touched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. They “get me,” and not just because we have cancer in common, but also because of their positive outlook on life. These are the people I keep close to my heart.
♦ You may find your passion.
I mentor newly diagnosed survivors, share resources, and work with other advocates to ensure cancer remains a priority for our government at all levels. I thrive in using my experiences to help others.
♦ You don’t need to “go it alone.”
With more than 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States, you’re sure to meet others with similar diagnoses or situations. Plus, there are many organizations that can connect you to other survivors with shared experiences.
One of the greatest lessons that cancer taught me was how to face my fears.
♦ You’ll learn about yourself.
One of the greatest lessons that cancer taught me was how to face my fears. Diagnosis, surgery, life after treatment, dating, starting my career, so much more. These moments brought fear to the surface many times, and many times I stood up to the emotion and propelled myself forward. I’m determined to live life to the fullest. I learned to rock climb, ride a bike again, go on backpacking trips, travel, speak in front of large audiences. I discovered this courage and enthusiasm for new adventures that I honestly didn’t know lived inside of me.
♦ You appreciate simple beauty.
I once spent 17 days in the hospital during treatment due to an infection. By day 14, I was restless, so my nurse took me outside to the hospital gardens. It was glorious to just sit under a tree, breathe in fresh air, and listen to the birds sing. Since that moment, I thrive in nature, from feeling a soft breeze, to watching the waves roll in, to smelling fresh flowers. It’s the simple moments that truly fill my life – phone calls from friends, laughter, walks with someone special, watching the sun set on another day that I’m alive.
There’s no doubt that being diagnosed with cancer as a young adult molded my life. Facing my own mortality at a young age opened my eyes to the more serious aspects of life. Cancer reminded me that life should not be taken for granted. It also showed me the true beauty that fills the world, beauty so many people don’t even notice until they’re older. Every day, I strive to be grateful for the people and the moments that fill my heart with joy. Every day, I celebrate another day that I am alive.
Heather Hall is an osteosarcoma and melanoma survivor. She loves to volunteer, serving as a LIVESTRONG Leader and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network advocate; mentor other cancer survivors; and explore the world. You can follow her adventures at HeathersHangout.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.