Q: You have recently disclosed that you have had a diagnosis of cancer and described your experience in some detail on Medium. What does it mean to you to be a “Cancer Survivor”?
A: Calling myself a survivor sometimes feels like an exaggeration. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 1A2 squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. It began with a routine pap smear and led to a robotic laparoscopic radical trachelectomy seven months later. Every procedure was challenging, and surgery was particularly arduous. However, I did not have to endure radiation, brachytherapy, or chemotherapy. I got to keep my hair, didn’t have to cope with nausea or worry about the lifelong maintenance required after radiation. So, in many ways, calling myself a survivor feels fraudulent. I have it too easy.
The physical recovery was relatively smooth but there is no preparation available for the mental toll of the Big C diagnosis. After the gynecologist shared the news, everything moved quickly. Within 10 days I had an MRI and was in consultation at Princess Margaret Cancer Hospital. It did not leave much room for preparation. In a very brief timeframe, I went from being a healthy 32-year old with no plans to have children to being a 33-year old who might not have a say in the matter.
People expect others to react in a binary way to that kind of news. There is a belief that one can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic, but that is a false dichotomy. Some days optimism abounds; most days, the fear brews below the surface unacknowledged. I mentally created a list of unanswerable questions (Would a hysterectomy be better? Would I feel like less of a woman? What if it comes back? How do I cope with this forever? Is this what kills me?). I researched and armed myself with information – a coping mechanism that allowed me to ignore my own terror.
I am not the same person I was a year ago. Prior to this, I was entrenched in the pitfalls of my Type A personality: a planner and organizer, domineering and determined, opinionated and unwilling to compromise. I had big ambitions and undaunted confidence. But our best-laid plans can be laid waste by a simple two-word sentence: “It’s cancer.” I wished I believed that this was part of some larger plan but it wasn’t. Instead, what it meant for me was that I had to change. My attitude needed to be different if I was going to come out the other side not completely broken.
Cancer took away my control. I could think of little else. Administrative inefficiencies rendered me powerless. I couldn’t get the answers I was seeking faster than they were willing to give them. For example, making decisions for myself was challenging when I needed answers from a busy surgeon. If I tried to use the same approach as I normally would, I would probably have ended up insane. So, I made the decision to adapt. I had to learn patience, to be more open to spontaneity, flexibility, and work on being able to ‘go with the flow.’ I try to allow humour and positivity to flow into impossible situations. I practice kindness and thoughtfulness as often as I can. I strive to think of others and notice their needs. Above all else, I try to treat people the way I want to be treated; to be more open and to deliver honesty without being cruel or callous.
There are many days when I fail at most of those things. Self-improvement is never easy. Imposed self-improvement as a survival mechanism is even more difficult. Finding and maintaining true positivity in the face of overwhelming terror has been the hardest task of all.
The depression that surfaced during recovery was different; it was borne out of a deep desire to live and the constant fear that I might not. I still don’t have certainty. The fear that surrounds each appointment will never abate. In a strange way, that has been inspiring. I want to live. I want a full, vibrant life that is technicolour. It doesn’t mean every day, and it doesn’t mean I get to tick off all those dreams immediately. Ultimately it means that I want to live better and that’s what makes me a survivor.
Erin Maloney’s contact info is included in the author affiliations at the top of this page.
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