Some of life’s best lessons may come from Hollywood. Who among us hasn’t been able to work quotes from “The Godfather” into everyday life? As a writer, when I can’t decide which sentences flow best in a chapter, “Leave the gun, take the cannolis” always comes to mind. Or when I’m dealing with a difficult editor, my hands down go-to is: “I’m gonna’ make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
When it comes to cancer, though, there’s one movie that really works—“The Wizard of Oz.” The day you hear humankind’s most terrifying words, “You have cancer,” is the day your brain is ripped from its foundation and sucked up into a twister, just like Dorothy’s house. And while it’s spinning out of control, you look out the window, and you see your oncologist in a rocking chair, knitting. (In the movie, you’ll remember, it was Auntie Em.)
Then BAM! Your brain hits earth again, and you find yourself in a completely unfamiliar land. Luckily, Glinda, the good oncology nurse dressed in pink and merengue, greets you. But you’re whipped back to terror when the Wicked Witch of the West—a.k.a. cancer—arrives on her broom and says in her scariest voice, “I’ll get you my pretty. And your little body too!”
We want to be free of this new menace in our lives. And Glinda, the good oncology nurse, has the answer: we have to travel to Oz, otherwise known as the cancer center. She tells us to follow the yellow brick road, so we do. We trudge through surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation. We meet inspiring individuals along the way, who, just like us, are also looking for answers to surviving cancer, although one of them is looking for a brain.
Does this sound familiar? Can you relate? It comes from personal experience. In 2011, I was a published author with a busy speaking career. I was also a newlywed, having just found the man of my dreams. And then one day, there it was, a funny lump located a hair to the right of my left breast. I asked my new husband to feel it (men will feel your boobs if you ask them to) and he agreed it was something new.
More disturbing was the fact I had just had my annual “happy gram,” telling me my mammogram was normal. Apparently, this little lump was camera-shy. A procession of diagnostics eventually led me to cancer’s front door: triple-negative breast cancer. Although being negative for something—especially “three somethings”—sounds like a good thing, this wasn’t. This beast was uncommon and aggressive.
I’m a nonfiction writer, a biographer to be precise. I do a lot of research for my books, and I did the same for my cancer diagnosis. Surgery, reconstruction, chemotherapy, I became such an expert, I could have practically performed my mastectomy myself. But at no time did it occur to me to research survivorship.
Twists & Turns
I just figured that when it was over, the old Judy would jump out of the chemo cake. But the old Judy was nowhere to be found. Replacing her was a chronically fatigued insomniac (how is that dichotomy possible?), who spent her days in a brain fog and her nights drenched in sweat.
As my hair was falling out, a family story repeated in my mind. Upon seeing me in the hospital nursery as a newborn, my aunt who had never had verbal filters told my mother that it was a good thing I was a girl. A boy with a head like mine would be teased his entire life.
That physical abnormality that had been lurking under my cute blonde bob would now be on display for months? And while effortless weight loss is something every woman aspires to, this was not a method I would recommend to anyone.
Like all the cancer survivors in Oz, when treatment ends, more questions bloom. Who am I? What was it all for? What am I supposed to do now? We ask Glinda, the good oncology nurse, “Will you help me? Can you help me?” And she replies: “You don’t need help any longer. You’ve always had the power. But you would not have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself.”
Those were Glinda’s actual words to Dorothy. But they work for survivors, too. We do come home from cancer-Oz with newly found wisdom. I have read dozens of wonderful articles filled with lessons my fellow survivors have learned. Allow me to add mine.
1. Everything unfolds on its own schedule. Anyone else a bit of a control freak? Oh, I see a lot of hands shooting up. No matter how hard we try to wish our desires on the universe, the universe always does its own thing. And sometimes it presents us with a mountain so big—like a cancer diagnosis or survivorship issues—we can’t imagine climbing it. A favorite quote comes to mind: You can even eat an elephant a bite at a time. The translation is not to picture the entire challenge. Take one day, even one hour, at a time.
2. Find the treasure in your wreckage. I’ve heard many survivors say that their cancer was a gift, and that’s the way I prefer to think of it, too. This is not always easy, though. The first treasure I found was the power of being a bald woman (my wig felt like a dead cat on my head, and I ditched it early on). When stepping aboard an airplane, the other passengers couldn’t decide if I was a rock star, a fashion icon, or a terrorist, and their expressions were a hoot. But that was just a tiny treasure.
Unable to find the next great story to tell, I founded a small nonprofit organization I named A2ndAct (www.a2ndact.org), to celebrate women survivors. Through it, I met the woman who would become the inspiration for the great story that needed telling. My new book, From Shadows to Life: A Biography of the Cancer Survivorship Movement, follows the lives of 5 people who launched and led a social movement that changed the lives of millions of cancer survivors around the world, including yours and mine. Now that’s treasure! (Look for an article on this in the June issue of CONQUER magazine.)
3. Helping is healing. We had cancer, and we can’t undo it. But if we can find a way to use the treasure we accumulated (see #2 above) to help someone else or something else, 2 miracles happen. First, a worthy cause gets a boost, whether it’s cancer-related or not. Second, there are great health benefits to volunteering, a topic of great interest to researchers over the last few decades. When we focus on other peoples’ troubles, we don’t have time to focus so harshly on our own. Less stress and less worry are good for survivors.