“Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts—it’s what you do with what you have left.” ~Hubert Humphrey
Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks after my wedding, at twenty-seven years old. After months of grueling chemotherapy treatments, I am now recovering from surgery and can look back with tremendous appreciation at what my body has accomplished.
One question I get, after the gasps and looks of incredulity have faded, is how I got through it all.
Now, for a long time, my toughest challenges in life were those brought on by my own anxiety and societal expectations.
Driving home in bumper to bumper traffic, growling and snarling all the way while turning up the music on my radio, hoping to blast out the perceived injuries to my life: clients with severe meltdowns, working long into the night, a crippling fear that I was somehow not good enough at my job despite being awarded employee of the month. I didn’t like my life much.
I suspect you may be a lot like me. Drained, stressed, overworked, underpaid, dreaming of breaking the cycle but sighing in the knowledge that life simply isn’t that simple. Angry that you have been sold on the possibility of happily ever after and betrayed by the realization that, despite knowing better, you bought it.
Here’s a fact, though: You can get through anything. No, really, you can.
I could go on and list the obstacles, side effects, financial losses, relationship struggles, and hundreds of other daily realities of being a young cancer patient in America. But I won’t. Because my struggle is not actually bigger than yours.
We need to stop pretending that others are not struggling. Everyone is struggling in some way or another. Let me repeat that—everyone is struggling.
Here are the lessons that got me through my struggle:
1. Now is the perfect time to finally let go.
The trials of your past may not seem to haunt you until you are actually faced with your mortality.
But when you recognize that you might die tomorrow, you may find yourself reviewing your life. And believe me, even after years of my own personal therapy, there were skeletons in those closets that deserved my recognition, respect, and final burial.
For example, I acknowledged the damage inflicted by my first boyfriend. His emotional detachment and choice to use me as the scapegoat for any and all ills in the relationship echoed deeply, creating a subconscious love of self-reliance that bordered on obsessive.
While I had presumed I had mended all issues relating to my inability to trust, cancer taught me otherwise.
When you are unbearably sick, you must rely on others—your choice in the matter quickly succumbs to need. You need others to help get through the day, and suddenly I had to trust that my partner, friends, and family would be there for me, and would not resent me as a burden.
As I cried, cursed, and flailed my way through bout after bout of debilitating nausea, hair loss, and weight gain, my husband remained steadfast in his care.
When I realized he had seen me at my most vulnerable, depressed, and physically destroyed—and had no intention of leaving—my heart cracked open. I finally saw that my ex-boyfriend’s curse had been holding me captive for years, and was horrified by how much power I had given to his memory.
Your past can and does affect you in ways that you might find embarrassing, upsetting, or difficult to discuss. And while there is a brief discomfort in admitting to these feelings, I guarantee the emotional freedom gained is invaluable.
One tip for letting go of something for good: Honor your emotional breakthroughs with ritual.
In my case, I drew a bath, added flowers and essential oil to mark the occasion, then, with a washcloth, I slowly cleansed myself of any shame, anger, or sadness regarding my ex.
I imagined the memories, and with each one breathed deeply until I could see the moment from a place of empathy. Then I unplugged the drain and imagined all the hurt and connection to this person flowing down and out, neutralizing in the earth.
2. Your dreams are more important than you think.
I had always wanted to be a writer before cancer, and only because of my diagnosis did I actually sit down and start typing again.
I realized suddenly how sad it would be if I had spent my entire life wanting something, but due to my own fears or presumption that I could do it later, never showed the world my true colors.
I remember holding my breath, hovering over the “publish” button on the website that would now host my blog, and only after the diagnosis taking that leap of faith.
We often do not pursue our dreams out of fear—fear that we will not make money, fear of judgment or ridicule, fear of failure. But in doing so, we allow those untapped dreams to fester into feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, anger, or disappointment.
What helped me break free was asking myself, if I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret not having done with my life?
Imagine it. See yourself on your deathbed with fluttering eyelids, knowing that they may not open again. Or envision yourself as a ghost looking back on this moment. Would you be happy with what you saw? What would you like to see in your life instead?
Remember this anytime you are on the brink of moving forward with a dream, whether it is finally purchasing a set of paints and canvas, or stepping onto a stage, or fiddling with the strings of an old guitar: How would your ghost feel if you turned away at the last moment and spent the day watching TV instead?
3. You are your true judge.
Isolated due to my condition, my self-esteem took a nosedive. I realized slowly that my former self-confidence came from external praise or experiences, not my own internal beliefs.
It took a lot of work, but one day in the middle of a meditation, I looked around and realized no one was there.
Then I shouted, “No one gives a damn what I’m doing right now, except me!”
I shouted it again. And again. I laughed from deep within and finally understood: Who cares what others think? I could meditate however I wanted—do the Macarena, recite Humpty Dumpty—and no one would care.
Why could this not translate to every other day in my life? Of course, there are practical reasons for not streaking though your office party, but I believe this desire pales in comparison to the measures we all take to prevent being judged.
We act as if we are being watched so thoroughly that we second-guess everything, from the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, even down to the friends or partners we choose.
Who would you be if you lived every day in isolation? Are you happy with yourself, inside and out, when sitting alone in a dark room? Who would you want to be if no one was there to judge you?
At the end of our lives, it is only you who has been through it all. You are the one that needs to be happy with yourself, not others, because they haven’t witnessed all the evidence that comes through actually being you.
Do yourself a favor: Spend some time alone with yourself every day to get in touch with who you are, without all the fear of judgment.
4. Do not wait to release your anger.
One of the major challenges I experienced through treatment was an incredible, incendiary anger.
I was angry at having cancer so young; I couldn’t understand why I deserved it. I often cursed at the imagined causes of my illness—God, pesticides, the chemicals in literally everything, a distinct lack of kale growing up.
So, what was the fact that I had rebelled against my entire life, the thought that had caused me so much anger? That life is unfair. We live in a world of unmet expectations, and no matter how tremendous of a person you are, bad things may still happen to you. And no, there is nothing you can do about it.
You may have a hundred reasons for why you feel angry, but there is only one reason to let it go: You will find freedom. I had to work incredibly hard—meditate, write, shout, cry, and talk to a therapist—but I can say that with each recognition of anger, I felt myself lighten and grow happier.
5. Be completely, honestly, and openly yourself.
One of the reasons behind my anger was that I had spent a great portion of my existence trying to mask everything unique and interesting about me. I was afraid that if I did not fit the mold, I would not be valued. Then I might never be hired, or succeed in life, or be loved.
This is a lie. It is a horrible, incorrigible lie we tell ourselves, and I am here to state that it is has never been true. You can be loved, just the way you are.
After my diagnosis, I came out as a pagan to my family and friends. I had always been terrified of doing so, for fear of persecution or rejection, and because the negative myths surrounding my faith are plentiful. I prepared for a backlash. And found none.
I can now speak freely and openly about my beliefs with all of my family and in-laws. I have even been open with previous colleagues and found nothing but support or curiosity.
This is just one example, but I guarantee, you can actually be you. Because, while you may not always find immediate support, those who reject you will fall away and leave room for those who will adore you. Because you deserve to be loved, just the way you are, each and every day.
But the first person who needs to do that is you.
6. Actually love yourself.
I found myself in awe of what my body could survive while going through chemotherapy. I was on the brink of death, walking as if on a fine-toothed comb, bracing myself for any possibility. But I survived, and I suddenly fell in love with my body as never before.
I used to lament every curve, every cell of fat out of place, every remotely visible wrinkle drawing new lines on my face. Now I see strength, I see scars of survival, I see power. I am like a battled-hardened jaguar: ferocious, proud, and unafraid.
I love myself. I am unique, different, talented, and I am the only one who can see the world through my eyes. And so are you. Everyone struggles, everyone has faced a battle, everyone has had at least one day in their lives where they questioned if they wished to see the next.
But you truly are so much stronger, so much more deserving of love than you think. And while I know I will have to work hard to keep this excellent relationship with myself going, I now have a little song I sing to myself whenever I feel bad.
Feel free to sing it to any melody you life, and use anytime you feel a lack in self-love.
I am in love with my soul, just the way I am.
I am in love with my heart, just the way I am.
I am in love with my form, just the way I am.
I am in love with myself, just the way I am.
Just the way I am.
You do not need to have had cancer to make these changes in your life. In fact, I beg you, do not wait until disaster strikes to pursue your dreams. Life-threatening circumstances should not be the permission you need to finally turn things around.
You are your judge, you are worthy of love, you have every right to be yourself, and you deserve to be happy and pursue your greatest desires.
I cannot promise you a happily ever after—no one can. But I can tell you that as long as you are alive, you have far more power than you think, for you are not a ghost; don’t live your life as one.