When was told I had an aggressive breast cancer, my first thought was not “thank you, I am absolutely thrilled with this gift!” Attempting not to hyperventilate, keel over and hit my head thereby fast tracking my death, I called my husband.  He was not excited either, we did not open a bottle of Champagne and dance wildly about the room in elation. Of course, I couldn’t wait to tell my fourteen year old son the joyous news. As an ordinary woman living an ordinary life I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that my ordinary life, which suddenly seemed remarkably precious, would continue.

Imagine opening your birthday present and finding “the gift of cancer” nicely wrapped in tissue. Whoa … this is not the gift I had in mind. I would have preferred a million bucks.  Now that’s a gift. A few moments after being diagnosed with  cancer, I started wondering how to return this gift because re-gifting in this case really just did not seem right at all. Fairly soon after diagnosis I began a serious and debilitating course of treatment that I hoped would end up in an exchange for “the gift of remission.”

I was no stranger to sitting with mortality, my own, that of others. Considering my age, immortality did, indeed, seem out of the question at this point yet I could still curl up with a fuzzy fantasy of longevity and snooze off.  Looking back, my mortality really was still a concept. But for me, and I believe for those of us who receive a life threatening diagnosis, philosophy and science fly out of the window when we are smacked with the reality of facing our mortality in the moment. It’s a bit unnerving, to say the least.  People make comments like, “well, we’re all going to die” implying that it’s really no big deal, we’re all doomed anyway so stop complaining.  And, yes, we’re all going to die but it’s a bit different when you’ve drawn the short straw of cancer. While I really, really wanted to become a better person, I sometimes felt pressured by the expectations (my own and those of others) of some profound transformation. Yes, there is an opportunity for immense personal growth but it’s complicated by the threat of death that might cut short whatever plans we make.  We are, indeed, mortal beings.

Much has been written, talked about, filmed, photographed, described and blogged, chronicling the transformative experience of cancer. Without question, heroic memoirs and miracles do inspire us to trudge on through the muck of illness. Often you read about cancer survivors flipping their lives into something more meaningful than they had ever dreamed possible. But today, we’ll leave those stories to another page …

I’d love to hear how your life has changed after cancer. Even more evocative, how are you changed after cancer?