Janeen's Story                                                                                                                  full version

                “Cancer gave me the strength that I needed to find my voice                     

and the courage to speak up and share it with the world.”

When I heard the words “You have cancer,” my mind flashed immediately to the scene in the movie “Terms of Endearment” where the young mother is dying in the hospital and her children are brought in to say goodbye.  I thought, “This can’t happen to me!”   My mom had taken me to my doctor’s appointment.  Afterward, when we were pulling into the driveway at our house, I saw my son and husband laughing and playing ball outside.  I resolved at that moment that I would get through this somehow.  I didn’t know how I would deal with whatever lay ahead, but I knew I would do whatever it took to stick around and see my kids grow up.

I had noticed an indentation in my breast after showering one day and scheduled a mammogram.  I was diagnosed a month later, on my daughter’s seventh birthday.   My son was four.  This was the beginning of a whirlwind of change in our lives.  I had surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

The hardest moment of all for me was looking at my scars for the first time.  It took me two days after I was allowed to remove my bandages before I felt ready to do it.  I was home alone.  I screamed as loudly as I could.  It was an emotional shock, certainly…but I’m still here.  My reconstructed breasts don’t feel like my own.  I don’t feel connected to them.  Loosing hair for me was hard, but I knew it was coming back.  I let myself mourn my losses.  I have found courage through allowing myself to do that.

As I began to regain my strength, I was struck by a powerful need to make healthier choices for my family and myself.  I have to say that many positive things have come from what we have been through.  I don’t want to give cancer credit for all of that; I was on the path to becoming who I am now before my life was touched by it.  Ironically, though, illness was the catalyst in my life that sped up my process of embracing health and wholeness.

After my diagnosis, I began to look clearly at my lifestyle.  There were no other family member who had been through breast cancer—it was clearly not genetic.  I was searching for answers.  I began reading about convenience foods and skin care products and how many of them have questionably safe ingredients.  I was upset about how anything potentially dangerous could be sold as “natural” to unsuspecting consumers.

Many people didn’t understand the changes that I was trying to make in my life, such as eating organic food.  I wasn’t used to going against the grain, but found myself making a complete turn around with our diet.  It felt empowering to take my health into my own hands, to take responsibility for the quality of the food that fuels my body and mind.  Sugary treats and potato chips had been staples in our household.  They made up a large part of the diet that I had been raised with and ate most of my life. Making healthier choices has been a journey.  As my awareness about unprocessed foods grew, I felt shocked to find out how unhealthy many of our previous food preferences were.  My family has been surprisingly cooperative with everything.

I have a small garden and enjoy tending it with my children.  It’s hard for them to welcome so many new vegetables and healthy flavors into their lives.  I try to involve them in cooking.  My son especially likes to help me in the kitchen.  I used to be a “McDonald’s mom.”  There is no going back for me now.  I have learned some things.  I have changed.

Growing up, I was the youngest child in our family and the only girl.  I was told a lot of things that I took at face value.  Going through cancer changed this for me.  I saw that it was imperative for me to speak up for myself.  Now I see the importance of saying whatever is on my mind.  I used to compare myself to others and worry about what they thought about me.  The experience of cancer in many ways has helped to empower and strengthen me.

Physical appearance was a primary focus through my young adult years.  There was a tremendous pressure from those around me, even as a grown woman going through chemotherapy, to get a wig.  I didn’t want one.  I did get one, but it ended up collecting dust on my shelf.  I think that the old me would have worn the wig.  I would have cared more about what other people thought, but the new me chose comfort over looking a certain way.  Cancer gave me permission to discover who I really am.  Being faced with my own mortality helped me take the reins in my own life.

My once long, black hair is now short and graying.  I don’t mind the gray.  It would have bothered me before, and I’m sure I would have dyed it.  Now it’s a part of who I am. I don’t want the chemicals or the fuss involved with covering the color up.  There are so many other more important things to focus on.  It’s refreshing to be so much more accepting of who I am!

Although it was hard to let go of all the things I usually did, many women I’ve spoken to had it worse—implants that failed, or no medical insurance—I don’t know how I would have dealt with those things.  I admire them for what they have been through or are going through.

We all have the strength we need to make it through whatever life hands us.  We don’t think we are tough enough, but when the need arises, we find that we are. It’s like that with any difficult situation.  If I could get through all of the things I have been through and still be able to find acceptance and joy, then there is nothing I cannot do.  I want to pass this outlook on to my kids.  I try to be a role model for them, and show them that they can accomplish anything that they put their minds to. We don’t have to allow life’s circumstances to hold us back from anything.

My husband and I would like to be the kinds of people that our children will look up to and want to follow in our footsteps.  We are affectionate with them, and tell them often that we love them and believe in them.  I want my children to learn how to live their lives to the fullest, not to be held back by fear, as I was for most of my life.  I want them to know that what they think and have to say is as valid as the thoughts and opinions of anyone else.

I wish there were a way for me to have become the person that I am today without having gone through cancer, but I think these experiences were a necessary catalyst for me.  There has been a tremendous transformation in my life.  I was in an insulated but limiting cocoon for so long.  Sometimes it takes something catastrophic to drastically alter the course of our lives.  Cancer gave me the strength that I needed to find my voice and the courage to speak up and share it with the world.  It seems strange to say this, but the experience of my illness helped heal some very deep-set wounds inside of myself—wounds that I didn’t even recognize were there.

I have come a long way.  I’ve done a lot of personal growth work, and feel good about the process.  There are still things that I am working on, areas that need improving, but I feel good about where I am at today.  I have found my voice—and in doing so, I discovered my wings!