The following is a speech I gave at a Fight Against Breast Cancer Luncheon given by my plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Jensen and his staff. It was a lovely afternoon. The energy in the room was amazing. It was an honor to be in the presence of so many woman who possessed such strength and courage.
I want to Thank Dr. Jensen and his staff for inviting us all to be here today together. What an honor it is to be surrounded by such strong women who are fighters and warriors in their daily lives.
After hearing my short introduction you can imagine why they would choose me to speak today. I’ve had enough heart ache and trials to last a lifetime and here I stand only 37 years old. But here I stand still living life. Still trying to be a light to those around me. If a stranger met my children and I on the street, they would have no clue the struggles our family has been through. I like that. Because I’m no different from anyone else here on this earth. We are all struggling with pain, disappointment, and fears. Some are just more apparent on the outside than others. I’m not special because I’m a widow or special because I’ve had cancer twice in my life. I would like to share some of my experiences that have led me to have a greater appreciation for where I am in my life and how I’ve been able to move forward not just enduring the day-to-day but really enjoying it and finding peace.
When I was just 12 yo I was diagnosed with a malignant ovarian germ cell teratoma. Not a common childhood cancer by any means, but still scary none the less. I endured many surgeries and 3 months of intense chemotherapy drugs. I lost my hair during what was my Jr. High School years. Did home schooling and tried to maintain whatever kind of normal life I could. There was a time when the tumors had come back and my doctors feared the worst. They told us my prognosis would likely turn worse. After my surgery and pathology reports came back the doctors were surprised. With their experience and research they had never seen an outcome like this. The tumors were benign. My family thanked the God we believe in for saving my life at such a young age. I really thought I had endured my big trial for my life, but I didn’t realize that was just the tip of the iceberg for what my future entailed.
After being married for 14 years and just 6 months after my late husband finished his medical residency training in anesthesia he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor- Glioblastoma. He had a craniotomy where de- bulking was done and endured chemo, radiation and other experimental drugs. He was given 22 months to live and fought for 17 months until it was his time to go. I watched his brain and body slowly stop working over those long 17 months. It was heart breaking to watch someone you love suffer so much.
Then just 7 months after losing my husband to cancer. I got the results of a breast biopsy that I thought would be nothing. I mean how could it be anything? I had just lost my husband. I wasn’t going to have cancer. I kind of felt like the universe owed me a break of some sort. Apparently the universe didn’t get that memo. I was diagnosed with what we would come to find out after all the testing was Stage 2b Breast cancer- hormone positive, her 2 negative. Here I was battling cancer again in my life as an adult but with no husband by my side. How could this be happening???
There have been many scary, dark days in the past couple of years. Days where my fear of the future and grief of so much loss overtook me. There were days of anger for the new life I’d been dealt and just days of sadness when I looked at my children and thought they will not have a father to help raise them. I believe it’s good to honor these feeling and really embrace and feel them. I don’t think I could have let them go had I not. But the tricky part is for how long to embrace and feel them? And then at what point do you move past and let them go? These following points I’m sharing today help me move forward and help me think of life as more than just me and my hardships. Now nothing I’m sharing with you all today is new. These things I’ve put into practice have been shared time and time again. Why? Because they work. Here are 5 things that help bring me peace and joy despite my circumstances.
Acceptance is such a hard word for me or use to be. Acceptance of what my life now is can sometimes be a daily struggle. Acceptance didn’t come easily or overnight. It’s taken months or years depending on what it is I’m accepting. Some things on the larger scale take more time. Smaller losses might be more easily accepted. Sometimes it’s a daily choice I make? But there is POWER in acceptance. When I have accepted there is no longer an inner battle going on in my body and mind of what I think things SHOULD look like or be in my life. When I stop putting EXPECTATIONS on my life only then can true peace come. So how do we come to acceptance? This can be very individual, but one thing that has helped me is my next point.
- Being PRESENT and MINDFUL
Being present and mindful have helped me in my struggle for acceptance and more specifically in my fears of the future and losses of the past. When I focus on the present and give all my thoughts to just what lies right in front of me there is no room for thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future. I am making a conscious effort to make the most out of that day, hour, minute. The now!
“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.And that’s a revelation for some people: to realize that your life is only ever now.”
Our life is right now! Sure it’s hard not to think towards the future especially when dealing with treatments and surgeries. I remember thinking, “oh after this surgery then my life will be better or if I can just get through the radiation then things will be back to normal, but if I only set my sight into the distance I would have missed the small beautiful things happening around me every day. Like the gorgeous sunsets that paint out Utah skies or the neighbor that stopped by with a treat for me just because. Or the loving radiation therapist, Dana and Katie that welcomed myself and my 3 girls daily. They didn’t have to become our friends, but they did and that made all the difference in our lives during that time.
- Finding these beautiful things in our lives moves to my next point of having Gratitude. So number 3 is Gratitude. I can be having the worst day ever and then minute I start thinking of all the good things I’ve been blessed with in my life- my mood turns around. Because no matter how much struggle and pain encompass our lives there is always light. We need to reach for it and seek it. Sometimes I just have gratitude for getting out of bed that morning, or having enough strength and energy to take care of my girls on my own for that day.
Over the summer I was visiting Dr. Jensen’s office weekly for expansion as part of my reconstruction. I often felt lonely going in by myself to appointments because I had no spouse to accompany me. Most times I would sit in the waiting room observing other couples and women who had love and support sitting right next to them. Looking back I have so much gratitude for Becca and Tiana who always greeted me with smiling bright faces and showed their light to me during a very hard time. I knew I wasn’t alone as I sat in that waiting room.
- But something that I think works almost better than having gratitude is giving Service. So number 4 is service. When I get out of my head and stop thinking of all the things that have gone wrong in my life and truly think about what I might be able to do for others- a joy comes that can’t be received in any other way. And I’m not talking about serving in big ways with big organizations. That’s great if we can do that. But just start small in our own homes and neighborhoods and within our family and friends groups. Little things. I often get asked, I have a friend who’s just lost a spouse or my friend just got diagnosed with cancer. Valerie what should I do? How can I best support them and the thing I always tell them is to just DO. Do something for them. Don’t ask what they need. Listen to your heart and give to them. I tell them it doesn’t have to be big it can be a visit or a hand written note. Just something to show you care.
- Be vulnerable. This probable sounds like a strange one. Let me explain. I have come to find some of my greatest joy comes from my relationships with people. Family, friends, neighbors and those in my community. Connection is the biggest part of those relationships however great or small they may be in my life. When I can connect and relate to someone our relationship is taken to a new level. We all long for connection. The way I’ve discovered I can have this with people is to be vulnerable. Now I’m not suggesting to go share your deepest, darkest secret with a stranger on the street or someone you have just met. Trust your gut and you will know what to share with who and when. My closeness and connection to some of my family and friends has come when I have opened up and shared things that have made be very vulnerable to them.
When I sit back and look at all the new friendships and connections I made during my months of breast cancer treatments I can honestly say they were only made through me sharing my story and being vulnerable. I can remember sitting in Dr. Jensen’s office for the first time and meeting Lyndsey. I opened up and started sharing a little bit of my story with her. By the end of my visit we were both in tears. I hadn’t planned on going in there and opening up. It just happened. The connection I feel with Lyndsey to this day would not have come if I hadn’t been so vulnerable with her.
These connections and relationships can bring so much joy to our lives.
I want to share a quote from one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
So my challenge for you all today is to accept and embrace your lives and stories. The ones that encompass your breast cancer and the ones that don’t. Own your story. Own every part of it. Dig deep into your darkness and look for that light to shine in your own life and then share it with others.
It’s hard to see the light when we are stuck in the dark. It’s hard to move forward when that light is not shinning bright in our own lives. That’s why when we feel the light it’s so important to share it with others around us.
Share your light, share your story. Be vulnerable with others. Those experiences whether big or small will make a difference in your life and those around you.
Go find peace! Experience joy! Because Cancer or anything else can’t steal that from you!