Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Eureka! It's Not About You!

Months ago, I was asked to speak at the National Women's Show in April. It's easy to say 'Yes' to something when it is months away. The day slowly crept up and before I knew it, it was this past weekend.

I shot my mouth off and invited my mom and aunt to come up for the weekend as I thought it would be a great opportunity to spend the weekend together. Actually, while I was growing up, my mom, my aunt and I would all drive to Montreal twice a year to see my other aunt for the weekend. When I was fifteen, my aunt from Montreal died from pancreatic cancer and so I thought having my mom and aunt come to watch me speak about cancer was somewhat symbolic. As the day got closer, I started to get nervous because I was not only asked to speak, but I was asked to speak for 20 minutes. The longest I had spoken at an event was about 15 minutes and although the time whizzes by, my fear is that no one wants to hear about cancer for 20 minutes.

Regardless, I cranked out a speech and included challenges, hurdles, sweet stories, and times when I laughed in cancer's face. I went over it and over it on Saturday morning in preparation for Sunday afternoon's 2:30 slot. I practiced on Keith too many times to count and after the trillionth time, he said 'You're treating this like an oral presentation. Treat it like you are just having a conversation.' Don't tell him I said this, but he was right. That's exactly what was wrong. I was trying to memorize my own story. I started looking at my 'speech' less as a grade six school presentation and more like a chat with my girlfriends and I felt much more comfortable. Why didn't I think of that?

My mom and aunt got into town at about 4:30 and we met them for dinner. We had a delightful Chinese meal and afterwards, I opened my fortune cookie and it read like this:

Photo: Ok, ok, I get it. Move on.

Dammit, I know. I get it. Move on! Quit dwelling on cancer. Enjoy life. You survived. Sometimes, I feel like life is begging me to move on and I just keep wanting to hold on because by moving on I am accepting that cancer was allowed to do this to me and I am admitting that I have accepted it. And by moving on, I fear that I won't know who I am without cancer by my side. And if I move on, what is my excuse of being tired, and not having a breast?

That was a bit of an aside but it'll tie in later, I promise. Anyway, Keith left us girls and we stayed up much too late chatting. I took one last attempt at practicing my speech then closed my eyes.

We headed to the women's show at about 11am the next morning and as my mom and aunt went from booth to booth my stomach got tighter and tighter. I read that there were supposed to be 35 000 women go through this show this weekend and although I saw the stage that I was speaking on and saw that there was only room for about 35 women to sit while listening to me, I was freaking out a little bit. I have spoken in front of eight hundred people before, why was I nervous about this?

I started thinking about being perfect. I started thinking about being hilarious at the right times and getting the attention of the right person so that I could share my story at the next big event or write an article for a magazine or start a new career in public speaking (I think you get the drift and maybe a little of the delusion, too).

And then as I watched my mom and aunt booth-hop from the end of the aisles anxiously waiting for 2:30pm, I all of a sudden realized that this wasn't about me. This wasn't about how 'well' I did. This wasn't about being funny, or witty, or clever or smart looking. This was about that one woman in the audience who felt alone until today or that one woman who felt a lump but she was told that she was too young to have breast cancer. Like a huge bag of hammers slamming over my head, it hit me that this wasn't about me.

I had a sense of calm come over me and as I flicked my headset microphone from 'off' to 'on' I was completely ready to go on stage. So here we were, it was 2:30pm and it was time for the Professional Breast Cancer Ass-Kicker to go on stage.

As I was about a minute into my speech, a woman in her fifties came over, sat down and had a look on her face that said 'Oh good, I didn't miss this.' Throughout the twenty minutes, she did a lot of nodding, some crying, some laughing, and a lot of tear wiping. When I was finished, I got off the stage and went over to my mom and aunt. The woman in the audience was speaking to one of the women who belonged to the group that I was speaking for. I could see that she had been crying and so I went over to her and put my hand on her back and asked if she was ok. She told me that she had been diagnosed when she was 20 and then again when she was 40 and she could relate to so much of what I said (she continued to wipe the tears). Then, what made it all worth it was her saying, 'You know, I didn't know why I came here today. I came by myself and wasn't sure why I was here. Now I know. I came to hear you speak.' Regardless of being out of treatment for years, she still had pain, and still had tears that hadn't been cried yet. She got the contact information for the group that I was speaking for and is going to contact them for support. Why did I ever think that this was about me?

It's women like this that make me get up in front of ten, a hundred, or eight hundred people and share my story. Once I realized that it wasn't about me, I was able to help someone - the same way I was in India. I struggled for the first couple of days of my placement in Delhi because I didn't know where to start, or how I would fit in or how the children would take to me but once I stopped making it about me and made it about the children, learning happened. This weekend, once I made my speech about someone else, I was able and prepared and that woman ended up getting what she needed from my speech.

I think that damn fortune cookie was right and I think as soon as I realized that it wasn't about me, I was able to take another step towards closing my cancer chapter - not leaving cancer behind, but growing from my experience in order to help others and starting my next chapter. I think I am learning to use my story to help someone else rather than needing the help myself. Oh Lord, is this what they call an epiphany?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cancerville: Population Me

I know, I know, it has been weeks – months even. I don’t even know if I have a good excuse.

Well, I went to India, that’s gotta count for something. And, yes, it was amazing. I just keep thinking, ‘India exists’ and not just in textbooks anymore. I went with A Fresh Chapter along with 11 other survivors, Terri (the founder of A Fresh Chapter) and Hal, the world’s greatest digital story teller. I volunteered at a school that doesn’t have enough money for an actual school structure so we taught in a park. I have 1400 pictures to prove that I was there, friendships that will last a lifetime, and my heart was stolen about seven different times by different children whose different eyes told different stories.

About three weeks before I left for India, I asked Terri if it would be ok if I just told people that I went to India but didn’t actually go because I was scared, shitless. I was afraid for my safety. I was afraid of how the poverty was going to affect me. I was afraid that I was going to teach nothing to the children. I was afraid that I was going to be overwhelmed. And you know what happened? None of it.

I projected this sadness and depression on the people of Delhi before I even met them because I assumed that the importance that we put into ‘stuff’ here whether that means clothes, possessions, cars, money, accessories, etc. was what the people of India would be missing but instead I saw more smiles than I see here. I saw more pride in one person showing me her dirt floor home than I see here. I mean, I think it’s all safe to say that we all know that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and that money can’t buy love/life/experience/personality/insertanythingelsethatyoucan’tbuywithmoneyhere but until you see someone surviving, nay, thriving on $200/month, until you see children sitting, LISTENING, and happy to be at school because to them it’s a privilege not a right, and until you see a woman smile back at you simply because you have taken the time to acknowledge her, it’s difficult to express what that’s like.

I have struggled with the question ‘How was your trip?’. Quite often, I just say ‘Oh, it was great.’ because I don’t know how to formulate my thoughts and experiences into words or into a concise explanation that isn’t going to make someone want to gouge their eyes out.

What I think I can put into words is the feeling of giving. I’ll try to explain. Since the day that I was diagnosed, I became the focus of a lot of people’s lives. Every time I walked into a room, people would stop talking and start asking about me, if I needed anything, about my latest doctor’s appointment and when I was going to grow my boob back. I got quite used to talking about myself and expecting the conversation to be about me (now, I’m not going to lie to you, before cancer I quite enjoyed attention and talking about myself, it’s just that cancer really lit up that spotlight).

Unintentionally, sometimes I think I would make the conversation about me because I just became used to it. And because of this, I lived in a cancer bubble, where it was all cancer, all the time. And, I think I have dreaded the day that someone forgets that I had cancer,that I struggled, that I survived because when that day happens, I will feel like my entire experience will be undermined. If I accept that it's time to move on, I feel like I am contradicting that lesson that I have been trying to teach so many people - 'Cancer doesn't end when treatment does.' I don't feel any less associated with cancer now than when I was in the middle of treatment. The way I keep explaining it is through the loss of a loved one. I have explained many times how cancer is about loss and so when you compare it to the loss of a loved one, it's not like once you bury someone, you get in your car, drive out of the cemetery and say 'Geez, that was a hard week. I'm glad that's over.' It doesn't work like that. And cancer doesn't work like that either. I keep waiting to wake up one day without this cancer-monkey on my back but the little banana eating piece of shit won't leave. Ok, sorry, that may have been a little angry. In saying all of this, something that I did experience in India that I have yet to experience here was that with the children at my placement, I didn’t have time to worry about me and worry if these children remembered that I didn’t have a breast, the focus wasn’t on me, it was on them and it felt wonderful.

Although this was a wonderful feeling, to take a little from what Terri and I have talked about since our return to Canada, I think my problem is that I expected India to not be A Fresh Chapter in my life, but instead be the entire book. I expected to fly to India for two weeks, volunteer, meet new people, and become an entirely enlightened, clear, sorted, healed person. I put the pressure of my post-cancer struggles and (if I can coin a term here for a minute that my cancer peeps may understand) my 'stuckness' on India and so when I came home and I wasn't transformed (Changed? Yes. An entirely different person? No), I felt like I had failed at being a cancer survivor - regardless of how many times I tell other people that there is no right way to do this cancer thing.

This has led to a little soul searching and sometimes I wonder if I stay in my cancer bubble, in Cancerville (population me) because I don’t want anyone to forget that I had CANCER and the thought of not mentioning it within 20 minutes of meeting someone new makes me feel like I am lying to them because I have learned to identify with cancer, it is part of me, and I’m used to it, and I want to teach people about it (for example – the other day someone said to me [after finding out moments before that I had cancer] 'Well, I'm glad you made it.' Huh? I'm glad you made it? Isn't that kind of comparable to 'Hey, I'm glad you didn't die'? Sometimes I am a little sensitive to these things but when I got home, Keith assured me that that wasn't okay to say.).

I mean there's also the obvious angle of 'So, what you're saying is, if you attempt to move on, you won't be able to associate with cancer, and without cancer, who are you?' Yes, I have thought of this. And in a weird way, I think the timing of my cancer has somewhat defined me. I had just graduated for the third time from university and I was trying to find myself, trying to start a career and make a name for myself. I found a job and after 15 months, I was diagnosed with cancer. By the time I went back to work, I was as much a professional cancer patient as I was a professional working girl. At that point, the majority of my career life had been spent in a hospital. So who am I without cancer? I don't really know and to be honest, it frightens me a little to think about it.

How am I supposed to move on from cancer when the physical and emotional effects are at the forefront of my life?