Only 11 weeks after my dad was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer, I too became a member of the cancer club. I had melanoma. My family went from being a “normal” family (normal being relative for those who know us) to a family living with cancer. Living, though, took on an entirely different meaning after cancer entered the picture. Living with cancer is a juggling act – juggling the joy of life with the fear of death. Juggling the joy of small victories, of clear margins or clear scans, with the fear that one day the cancer will rear its ugly head again.
With my cancer diagnosis, I was forced to face my own mortality and the very painful possibility of leaving my daughter without a mother, my husband without a wife, and my parents without a child. Talk about a gut-wrenching reality check. The next week was agony as my family and I waited to find out exactly how advanced my cancer was.
However, I am a lucky one. Yes, I said that. Lucky. Unlike my dad’s colon cancer, my melanoma was caught early. While I will always be at risk for recurrence, my chances of long-term survival are excellent, and no matter what melanoma wants to throw at me, I’m going to keep swinging. Quitting is not an option. Losing is not an option. I may die of cancer one day, but I absolutely will not die from it while I am still living.
I may die of cancer one day, but I absolutely will not die from it while I am still living.
The question then became what to do with the second lease on life that I had been given. The answer was simple – I realized that the best way to help yourself get through a hard time is by helping someone else get through a hard time of their own.
I realized that I had been given the gift of survival, and I wanted to pass that gift along to other survivors. Suddenly, living with cancer became less of a juggling act and more of a celebration. I began to see cancer as a sentence to live, not as a sentence to die.
I knew that I wanted, and needed, to do something, but I wasn’t sure where to start. So, I reached out to the American Cancer Society, whose mission is to help people with cancer celebrate more birthdays – to give the gift of survival. I began volunteering at a local ACS Hope Lodge, serving dinner to cancer survivors, and their families, who were staying there while undergoing treatment.
Since I began my Hope Lodge mission in March 2014, I have traveled more than 10,000 miles back and forth from my home in eastern Kentucky to the Hope Lodge in Lexington. And I’ve purchased, prepared, and served 5,000 meals to cancer survivors and their caregivers at the lodge. I’ve even begun doing advocacy work for the cancer survivors in my own little community in eastern Kentucky. Through all of this, I’ve learned that there truly is life after
a cancer diagnosis, and that it can be far more beautiful and meaningful than you would ever expect.
When things happen to us, like cancer, we can choose to view them as a tragedy. Or we can find the celebration in it. We must learn to love life, even when sometimes it feels as if life doesn’t love us back.
Shannon Doan-Duff (pictured above) is a melanoma survivor and volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Lexington, KY.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2017.