Lessons from Surviving the Big C’s

by Mary Helen Darah

I recently shared some socially distanced time with a widow buddy of mine. She’s hurting. Thanks to the pandemic, she has been unable to see her new grandchild, she is worried about her business and coping with the stress of living with uncertainty. Over a glass of wine she conveyed her desire for a cure and her fear that even once things calm down a bit, COVID-19 will once again rear its ugly head. As a cancer survivor, this was beginning to sound far too familiar.
Over a decade ago I battled breast cancer. Living with chronic fear and a “new normality” are things cancer survivors experience on every day that ends in “Y.” As Mom would always say, “You can’t leave Hell empty-handed.” I know I grabbed many life lessons through my Big C journey that have helped me during these crazy times dealing with the other “Big C.”

Control what you can
We survivors learn very early on that there are things beyond our control. Once you come to accept that difficult truth it is actually very empowering. Back then I couldn’t control looking like Jerry Seinfeld from “The Bee” movie when my hair grew back black, fuzzy and curly post chemo. Now I must accept cancelling three trips, potentially altering plans for a daughter’s wedding and having the remains of my dear departed Mom being stuck in a funeral home until we can cross the border to take her to her final resting place in Canada. You must ADAPT and you can and will by appreciating the things you CAN control. The list is endless. A friend of mine manages the COVID-19 stress by baking. Unfortunately, one of my coping skills is eating her creations, which has given new meaning to the “19” (as in pounds). You not only have the power to see yeast, salt and dried cherries turn into something delectable but you also have the power to love, laugh, walk, read, pet the pooch, reach out to others, serve, help and above all HOPE.
Find your community

You can’t help but get the distinct impression that our world is being pulled apart, but I believe it is also getting scrunched together. Going through cancer is a lonely, scary, unpredictable existence until you find your “crew.” What I have witnessed during the coronavirus compares with a Komen Cure Race, or Light Up the Night cancer survivor event. I see evidence of people supporting one another by donating food for those in need, dropping off meals to frontline workers, checking in on neighbors and supporting small business owners. From personal experience, I can tell you there is nothing more powerful than shared collective hope for better days ahead.
The Great Pause
I have often heard of the pandemic referred to as the “Great Pause.” Unfortunately, for so many, that can refer to our fractured economy. Yet there is another incredible side to being forced to slow down and not wear our busyness as a badge of honor. I see many taking time to morph from “human doings” into “human beings.” A friend of mine told me that her husband asked her when she planted the gorgeous forsythia bush in their yard. She replied, “Twenty-two years ago.” During this time I find myself FaceTiming friends for hours, walking 18K steps a day and getting oddly excited when a Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits my feeder.
That brings me to another important similarity between both Big Cs. It’s OK to not be as productive as you once were. We are in survival mode. There are times, just as when going through the cancer journey, that I feel as if I deserve a sparkly sticker for going grocery shopping and taking a shower on the same day. There is a term in sailing called “being caught in irons.” It means that a boat feels stopped, sails will be luffing and you will not be able to steer normally. You may have to sail backward a bit before once again moving in the right direction. But here’s the beautiful thing, during this state, you are still above water, hopefully surrounded by an able, positive crew. The slow down will allow you to see the beauty around you and eventually the tiller will once again be on the desired track.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Surviving the Big C’s

  1. Amen. Words so well “spoken”. Thanks for giving a true perspective in how to navigate our lives. As a Brest Cancer survivor it is true – u worry about the things u have control over and there is not much else u can do Than u

  2. So thoughtful and written so beautifully. Thank you Mary Helen. You bring hope and lift up the spirits of many.

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