How I'm celebrating my 3rd cancer "diagnosiversary"
Three years ago today, I was sweating it out in a hospital bed as I received news from a physician I'd just met. She was someone I never signed up to meet, yet I'm oh-so-grateful she waltzed into my room at 7 PM, long after most physicians visit their patients.
And to be clear, I wasn't sweating it out because I was scared. I'd been running high fevers for 3 months, and nobody could figure out why. This was another physician coming to see me, I thought, to tell me that she didn't know what to do with me.
Little did I know that as the smiling physician maneuvered the awkward and heavy hospital recliner closer to my bed like it was no big deal, that she would not only know what to do with me, but completely knock the ball out of the park.
For all I knew, she'd been consulted to help me with the anemia that caused me to faint in my living room and earned me a ambulance ride in Atlanta morning rush hour traffic. By the way, to those of you sitting in traffic who made room as we whizzed by, thank you for taking time out of your busy day and doing so!
Not only did she have the answer to the anemia (cancer), but she also had an answer to the fevers (also cancer). And oh-by-the-way the cancer was also to blame for the 15 pounds I'd lost (15 pounds that I really couldn't spare) and the 10 cm x 10 cm x 9 cm grapefruit that had been perched and slowly growing in my right lung for several decades.
It was an inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor, an extremely rare form of sarcoma, or connective tissue cancer. Only 100 people were diagnosed per year in the US, I learned.
I was one of the lucky winners. I won't lie and say I didn't consider sending Daniel to buy a lottery ticket that night.
That super smart physician, Dr. Gina D'Amato, had a plan, and today, 3 years later, I am oh-so-glad she did.
Anniversaries, traditionally, can be a really weird or a really wonderful thing.
Most of the time they mark a time for celebration of a joyous occasion of the past.
Other times they can bring great sorrow of a somber or heartbreaking occasion of the past.
Either way, if we let them, anniversaries have a way of bringing the past—and many of the feelings we experienced on that joyous or somber occasion—into the present moment today.
Just to add a twist—sometimes we look back and view an occasion we once thought to be somber as now a joyous one. Perhaps this occasion has transformed from painful (then) to a turning point or stepping stone (now) which allows us to manifest a new life that we never knew could exist.
Other times just the opposite occurs. What was perceived as a joyous occasion in the past is now a somber reminder of what we no longer have.
Either way, we can probably all agree that anniversaries can be a really funny and paradoxical thing. What one person views as joyous, another person may view as a devastating reminder.
As I sat and pondered what I would write about for today’s 3rd anniversary of receiving a cancer diagnosis, I felt a bit torn.
On the one hand, I felt like I wanted to be celebrating. I felt like it’s what people, myself included, would expect me to do.
We’d all say, “Yay! Another year surviving the cancer ‘battle.’ How brave and heroic I’ve been. How strong and admirable I was during that time.” How lovely it would be to honor and celebrate the resilient spirit in myself and all of those who supported me.
This felt right.
On the other hand, I have spent the past several years in a perpetual state of learning to let go of thoughts rooted in the past—and all of the emotions that those thoughts bring with them—in order to allow me to enjoy and live in the very present moment. So spending time to dwell on the past—yes, even if for an anniversary of this type—would certainly take away from the present moment of today. After all, the present moment is all that we ever truly have.
This also felt right.
As it turns out, I’ve concluded that it’s not an either-or answer. It can be both. And that is perfectly ok. Neither approach is right nor wrong.
Both are one of those “is what it is” kind of things. Celebrating a diagnosis anniversary, or as I like to call it, diagnosiversary, could be part of the joy of today, but it didn’t have to be the only source of joy.
In fact, I choose to celebrate my being fully present to enjoy all of today's moments.
And so that I could both celebrate the past and stay present today, I wrote this blog yesterday. I know, sneaky and crafty, right? Gotta practice what I preach!
Today, 3 years after receiving a diagnosis of cancer, I regularly practice presence and surrender to what “is” on a daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment basis. I also regularly take time to celebrate both the smallest and the largest “wins” and let go of things that no longer serve me.
And I teach my clients to do the exact same thing.
It was the same 3 years ago for me too. While I was a bit newer at the practice then, I practiced the exact same things when I was diagnosed. I took it one day at a time. I didn’t dwell on things that didn’t serve me. I let them go.
And yes, of course, back then and even now I am not invincible to feeling worry or fear. There were and sometimes continue to be days where I wonder(ed) what would or will come in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.
This was especially true during times when the insurance company would interject and seemingly go out of its way to make the entire medical process as complicated as possible. Indeed, those were times where my "zen presence" mindset might find itself on the verge of derailment (to put it peacefully).
But despite the times when I wanted to punch the insurance agent in the face (there, not as peaceful) or the time when I found out just how major the major surgery I needed was going to be, I knew that it would all be fine—even if I didn't know how or when it would be fine or what "fine" actually meant.
With that mindset over the past 3 years, I have continued to strengthen my own practice of staying present, living only in the NOW, and allowing the flow of the Universe, the plan of God—whatever you want it call it—to just unfold as it has been designed to unfold.
The process of surrender certainly eliminated or reduced a bulk of the common feelings you may feel or you may have heard about that come up with a cancer diagnosis and treatment process: worry, fear, anxiety, anger, doubt, paranoia, and yes, wanting to sucker punch insurance companies for making decisions that just didn't make logical sense.
That’s not to say I didn’t feel those things periodically in some way or another along the way. I certainly did. And when I did, I practiced presence and surrender with them too—allowed myself to feel them when they came up, and then gently allowed them to float along on their merry way.
Journaling, meditation, and talking and feeling it out with my own coaches became part of my daily repertoire.
And guess what happened?
I learned how to apply that approach to the rest of my life.
And it paid in dividends. Stress melted away to a nearly nonexistent state in my day to day life.
And with that, I have found myself having an abundance of time and energy so that now, I can help people learn how to do exactly the same thing via my growing life and health coaching practice.
So again, when approaching this date, August 13, I found myself torn.
I felt resistance to participating in what could be a glorification and celebration of the past, something I’ve continued to let go of, and celebrating a turning point that helped catapult me to where I am now, here in the present.
What I know for certain is that on the surface, this 3rd diagnosiversary might look a bit different than the last 2.
At Diagnosiversary 1, I was groggy and hung over 2 days out of surgery #3 (a surgery we’d never planned on me having). I didn’t want to eat much, but did manage to get down a donut to celebrate. You know, the important things <smile>.
At Diagnosiversary 2, I played outside on the porch with the love of my life, my sweet new 12 week old puppy, Raven. Raven is a present we’d given me for kicking ass and taking names over the previous 2 years.
Now at Diagnosiversary 3, we have no plans. I guess I’ve written a blog…that’s something. And I'm perfectly ok with that.
Cancer is something I faced and continue to face (yes, a piece of the tumor continues to reside inside my body), but it doesn’t define who I am and certainly doesn’t define my life.
And I have to say, I’m super grateful I’m able to say that, and I’d really like to keep it that way.
I’m also grateful because I almost don’t even notice when my check-ups are coming up and usually don’t feel a lot of fear or stress when I drink the contrast liquid, get poked endless times in my perpetually-hard-to-find veins, hold my breath for the 20-somethingth CT scan, wait at home for 24-48 hours for results, and visit the oncologist’s office.
In fact, I’m really starting to feel like I don’t even fit in at the oncologist's office anymore. Rock on!
This last time I went in June, I didn’t even see Dr. D’Amato. I saw her nurse practitioner. Dr. D’Amato hadn’t even come in to the office for the day. It was a good thing!
You know you’re on the road to healing when the oncologist doesn’t feel like she needs to see you anymore and you get the idea from the NP that going into the office to get CT scan results is more or less a formality at this point.
Sometimes I feel a little guilt and wonder if I’m jaded, if I just don’t care, and if this ambivalence is dishonoring the thousands and millions of others affected by cancer who don’t have laid back visits that are more or less a “formality.”
To be very clear, I very much honor, love and salute those people.
But most of the time, as a patient who has totally been there, I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel guilty because they were thriving and therefore moved to the bottom of the oncology priority list. I’d be thrilled for them.
The general lack of emotion and concern around this whole cancer and anniversary thing feels…peaceful and right. Like it’s a thing of the past.
Our good friend Queen Elsa did sing it best I think:
The past is in the paaaaaaaast…Let it go, let it go….
So, I'm gradually just letting it go.
The one thing I do continue to marvel over is how this process continues to unfold the most beautiful version of me whether we include cancer in the story or not.
Not to downplay its place in my life at the time or the gravity of the situation, but in retrospect I can say that the cancer process has really been a blip on a much larger radar of a deep spiritual and emotional healing process I’d begun just a year prior to being diagnosed.
Previously living a life of overachieving, overstriving, overcommitment, overperfectionism (if that's even a thing) and really, over-everything—I eventually experienced a series of panic attacks that served as a wake up call that it was time to re-evaluate the way I was leading my personal and professional life.
I’d been getting warning signs along the way of both the anxiety and the cancer in the form of “minor” health issue after health issue. But I was too busy overachieving to really stop and put the puzzle pieces together for myself.
In many ways, had I not hit my own version of rock bottom and begun that emotional and life healing process, I might not have handled the cancer process in the relatively peaceful and surrendered way that I did.
Cancer may have certainly sped things along for me just a bit, because yes, there were absolutely times where I felt that I needed to completely live life to the fullest. I didn’t know if I’d wake up from surgery with a functional body. Or taking that one step further, occasionally I wondered if I’d wake up from surgery at all.
That’s a quick way to snap anyone into a “carpe diem” mindset (if they choose to take the opportunity, that is)!
At the same time, having been there, I contend that you don’t have to have the challenge of cancer or surgery looming in front of you to make that choice. You can choose to start living life to the fullest any time you’d like. You don’t have to wait on cancer or death or anything else for that matter!
I know that because I help my health and life coaching clients with this every day, and gratefully at the time of writing this, not one of them is facing a diagnosis of cancer or a prognosis of death (though it would be perfectly ok if they were).
But they may have hit their own versions of rock bottom or they may see rock bottom up ahead and want to avoid it.
Sometimes, as much as we kick and scream about it at the time, we do need that "rock bottom" wake up call and reminder. Mine came in the form of panic attacks where I truly thought I was dying.
4 days after those panic attacks I was on the phone with my own coach, embarking on a new journey and terrified about where it would take me.
I’m certainly extremely grateful to have already been working with her a year later when I received the cancer diagnosis.
Perhaps receiving the news of the diagnosis more or less allowed me to choose to speed along the process I was already on. And how fortunate that I had a beautiful and wise coach in my own corner to help me stay grounded in the process.
Yes, the coach needs a coach too!
But she and I are both fairly certain that because I had already begun to roll the proverbial healing boulder down the hill, I would have rolled myself to where I am now eventually, whether cancer played a role or not.
How can I be certain?
As I continue to grow into the most real and pure version of myself, it becomes easier and easier to let go of and get rid of things in my life that don’t serve me.
It becomes less and less scary to make brave and bold career and life leaps that might otherwise challenge the "norm."
And I continue to become more and more inspired to create exciting and once-seemingly impossible adventures from scratch with my husband and the people I love.
So I know I would have gotten here eventually because surrender and presence are the gift that keep on giving: they beget more surrender and presence.
It really is like a boulder rolling down a hill. Sure, I could stop myself and go backwards at any point. But it sure would be hard and likely wouldn't be worth it.
And what's really cool is that the more easy, clear and pure this version of life and myself become, the more I see that the real me was there all along, hiding under the guises and masks of the overachiever, the go-getter, the perfectionist, the brainiac, the athlete (and so many more “roles” I played).
Bearing the burden of carrying around those masks was heavy, like trying to constantly push that boulder up the hill, instead of down it.
And what's so funny is I thought that's how I was supposed to be. I thought that was "just who I was." I thought that I was living the good life and that the hard work of carrying the masks and pushing the boulder up the hill was just a normal part of life.
I was doing the best that I could. But my best was never good enough, not even in my own eyes. I just kept working harder. I didn't know how to do anything halfway and I certainly didn't know how to say no.
To be fair, the "real me" didn’t hide all the time and certainly had her moments of peeking out from behind the masks. Most of the time she was definitely there, eagerly waiting for the right moment to shine her light through.
And for me, gratefully I GOT to hit rock bottom, get that boulder rolling down the hill, and go through the cancer process so that I could let that girl out from behind the mask.
I wouldn't wish panic attacks or cancer on anyone on the planet EVER, but I have to say, I'm so grateful to have had the opportunities.
And the pure and true version of me couldn’t be more glad that she no longer has to hide and bear the burden of carrying masks and pushing boulders up hills. And bonus--she is more or less tumor-free to boot. YAAAAAAAS!
But really, if it weren't obvious by now, I don't choose to talk about the tumor much anymore. Not because it’s too painful to do so, but because it just doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for me anymore.
So even though I don't want to dwell too much on this past experience and want to stay focused on the present moment, I do acknowledge the feelings of “honoring the Julie of the past” that I feel as well:
I send love, smile at and honor the sweet, brave, unafraid girl from 3 years ago who unexpectedly collapsed in her living room after 3 months of fevers, anemia, weight loss, confusion and misdiagnosis.
I salute the intense relief and validation she felt 36 hours later when her badass oncologist sat in her hospital room drawing cartoons of Inflammatory Myofibroblastic Tumors getting demolished by genetically-targeted chemotherapy.
I honor her intense sense of “I don’t know where this is going to lead me, but I know something really good is going to come from this, because from darkness ALWAYS comes light. I’m going to buckle my seat belt, stay focused and present, and enjoy the ride for whatever it brings.”
I honor the intense feeling of gratitude and relief that her sweet husband just happened to see her collapse on that floor. Had it happened not even 1 second later, he would have already been out the door on his morning run.
In fact, Daniel and I just discussed this past weekend how incredible it is that the timing of that event occurred just as it did. Of course it did. I’m certain it was supposed to happen in that very way, so that I would be taken care of and not have to be alone in what could have been one of the scariest moments of my life.
How grateful am I for that, and for life.
This may come as a surprise to some given the health state I was once in and the challenges I once faced, but I never once wondered if I would survive the cancer. That’s not because I have an incredible sense of foreseeing the future or invincibility to fear—but because Dr. D’Amato said I would get through it.
I thought, “If one of the smartest sarcoma specialists in the US says I’ll live to tell about this, then I’d like to believe her.”
Why would I have chosen to believe anything else?
I’m also grateful that in a very interesting and twisted way, the cancer process brought me into contact with some amazing people, most notably the most inspiring person I’ve ever had the privilege to know.
Grace Bunke’s story didn’t turn out the way mine has. No, it had a very different plot. Yes, in that "we are all one/shared consciousness" way, I feel a little guilty about that. I would have gladly given up my body’s place on this planet so that sweet Grace could have had it. At the same time, I feel so grateful that I got to meet and interact with her for the short, albeit rich, time that I did.
Why? Because in the darkest and hardest of times, Grace epitomized (and continues to epitomize) the essence of surrender, faith, hope, spunk and resilience.
If nothing else, Grace reminds me that staying present and living life to the fullest—or as her mom called it in Grace’s eulogy, living life from the FRONT ROW—in every single moment, is the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Grace did that remarkably well given her faith in God and in surrendering to the cards that she was dealt.
I, too, believe that and practice it daily. It's not a perfect practice though. Thankfully, the memory I have of Grace, a memory that is sparked every single day when I look at the sky, open an umbrella, think of swimming, or have a tough moment (i.e. hundreds of moments per day!) more or less seals the deal for me.
So you may be wondering, “What’s next? Are you of the woods?
Well, it really depends on who you ask or how you look at it.
Yes, there is a piece of tumor still hanging out against my right brachial plexus (those are nerves in my neck and shoulder, for translation). No, it doesn’t scare me or bother me that it is there. No, I can’t feel it. No, it hasn’t grown in just over 2 years since the rest of the grapefruit-sized tumor (along with several other body parts) was removed.
Yes, I still see some long term side effects from radiation therapy, chemo and from unknowingly carrying a tumor around in my body for several decades. My immune system continues to be a little suppressed. My hormones and periods are still a bit wonky. It’s very easy for me to slip into anemia and fatigue. I choose to pace myself and not overdo it…most of the time. (Girl's gotta play too!)
I was promoted from getting scans every 4 months to every 6 months back in June. In my desire to stay out of the oncologist's office and cut down on the number of barium (or berrYUM, as I call them) shakes I get to drink, you can imagine I am loving this kind of promotion!
So, in this present moment I am in no woods. That’s not to say there won’t be woods in the future. That’s not for me to know right now, so I choose not to worry about it.
So in conclusion, how do I feel on this 3rd Diagnosiversary, and how am I celebrating?
Grateful. Peaceful. Hopeful. Surrendered.
And I'm celebrating by living every moment today--and everyday--from the front row, to the fullest, and with intense and abundant presence and love.
I'm so glad the story continues to become a distant memory.
I can’t wait to see what comes next, and continue to salute and be grateful to everyone who has supported me and helped me get to this point.
Want to learn more about my philosophy and how I coach clients to find simple ways to stay true to themselves while living with peace and surrender through their own health and life challenges? Jump over to my scheduler and set up a free call with me!
I'd love to help you find peace and joy when life doesn't feel super peaceful or joyful!
P.S. I know what some of you are probably thinking, because this happens often when I tell “new” people that I have (had? Not sure where we are in the tense of that verb) cancer.
Rather than spell it all out here for you and reinvent the wheel, and in the spirit of keeping my own attention focused on the present moment, you’re welcome to jump down the rabbit hole and catch yourself up on the story by reading the rest of the very extensive blog I kept during the entire misdiagnosis/diagnosis/treatment/recovery/more treatment/more recovery process!
Thanks for reading and celebrating with me! Reach out if you have questions or would like to set up a time to chat!