It helped me shift perspective and live a more intentional life.
I discovered the lump in my breast by accident one night while dozing off to sleep. I was trying to get into a comfortable position when my arm pressed into my right breast, and for a fleeting moment, I could feel a hard, pea-size bump pressing back into my arm. Since all the women in my family have cystic breasts, I didn’t let it ruin my sleep. The following week, after my doctor checked it out, the lump was biopsied. The test results revealed the best of a worst-case scenario: I had Stage 1 non-invasive ductal carcinoma. I had just turned 41.
Even though it was caught early—and I am alive today because of that—in many ways, cancer did kill me. It effectively ended the person I was before my diagnosis. Surgery removed my breasts. Chemotherapy stole my flawless skin and strong nails. Tamoxifen, the estrogen-blocking cancer medication I was put on for 10 years, made me pack on the pounds. I didn’t look the same as I did before my diagnosis. And I certainly didn’t feel the same.
We all know beauty is illusive, but trying to maintain your physical appearance after cancer treatment is like trying to catch smoke. It can vanish right before your eyes. At least that was the case for me. This is the part of being a “survivor” that nobody prepares you for. And it can feel even more brutal than the battle itself.
Most survivors experience a similar physical and emotional shift after cancer. I am not alone in this. While this is often life-altering, it can also be life-affirming. As I watched my former self fade away, other, more important things, came into focus. By shifting my perspective, I was able to see my life in a fresh, unfiltered way. I call it my “Butterfly Moment,” because it helped me to transform into a freer, happier, and more positive person.
Metamorphosis isn’t easy. It takes a change of mind and heart and, most importantly, intention. I was able to change my thinking and attitude by focusing on these four things.
Make Your Life Count: My chemotherapy infusions typically took four hours. That left me a lot of time to contemplate my life and face my mortality. When I would sit there, one question kept coming to my mind: Now that you have a second chance at life, how are you going to emerge from this journey a stronger, smarter, more grateful person? When you start to think about days you might not get, you start to value every moment you do. I started to call my parents every day. I began paying forward my blessings with small daily acts of kindness. I went after my dreams and wrote my first book, Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women With Cancer ($14; amazon.com).
Know Your Worth: By the time my cancer treatment ended, I didn’t recognize my body anymore. I didn’t like what I saw. The Tamoxifen put me into “chemopause,” medically induced menopause that slowed my metabolism and gave me a muffin top and bat-wing arms. I also hated the red, ropey scars that trailed across my breasts. I kept thinking how gross I looked, how crappy I felt, and how nobody was going to find me attractive anymore. Then, one day it dawned on me: I had spent the better part of three years beating cancer, and there I was beating myself up with a negative internal dialogue. There will always be haters who will tell you what they don’t like about you. But you don’t need to be part of that chorus. Yes, I hate my scars, but now I try to see them as tangible proof that I was stronger than the disease that tried to kill me. I was stronger than cancer.
Express Gratitude: This sounds cliché, but it’s really hard to be happy when you are busy being sad, angry, or resentful. Don’t let the things you don’t have make you forget about the things you do have. When I was having a hard time focusing on the positives in my life, I started doing one nice deed a day for people around me who needed a boost. Recently, I was in line for coffee behind a man who didn’t have enough money. While he rummaged for change, I had the cashier ring me up for two large coffees—one for me, one for the gentleman. I’ve also made it a point to call all my elderly relatives on Sunday night. I spend time chatting with them so they feel less lonely and know someone cares. These small acts make me feel grateful for what I do have and that I can make a difference in someone’s life. It won’t take long to see the endless bounty of your life when you look at the real alternatives.
Be Optimistic: Life is tough. When I got sick, I tried to stay positive by finding the silver lining in every situation. Have to get a mastectomy—at least I’ll always have perky boobs and won’t have to wear a bra! Gonna lose my hair—now I get to wear wigs in different colors and cuts than my natural hair! It wasn’t always a walk in the park, but it made the experience easier on me, both mentally and physically.
Shifting how I viewed my life and putting those changes into action wasn't a painless process. It was really uncomfortable at times. It still is. It's a constant work in progress. But even on the crappy days, I feel happier, hopeful, and more peaceful than ever before. I say this all the time, and it is true: Cancer almost killed me, but it really saved my life.
Caitlin M. Kiernan is the author of Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women With Cancer ($14; amazon.com).