Cancer stole the future as I had imagined it and yet I was the one who had to do the time.
My friends and family showed up for visitation. My aunt sat beside me while chemo pumped through my veins. A friend left work to race to the ER when my white blood cell count led to an infection that had me shivering through a stack of blankets half a foot thick. Another friend came over one Saturday evening and stayed with me as I alternated between crying hysterically about the loss of my breasts at age 30 and pausing our conversation to empty the post-surgery drains.
I loved them for showing up and hated them for leaving. Every time the door closed and they slipped from my reality and back to theirs, I felt a sharp sting of abandonment. They had their lives, careers, and families. I had the silence of my apartment. I hated how jealous I felt of their normalcy. How I wished to be back in my career as a headhunter in the technology industry where there was never enough time. Now, I had nothing but time. Each day was a relentlessly blank slate with nowhere to be, no energy to pick myself up off the couch, and no reason to look to the future as it held only treatment and uncertainty.
As my hair poked through the surface of my scalp and my release back into everyday life became real, I could feel the anticipation around me. Perhaps now, we could all move on? The people who had not called because they didn’t know what to say could reach back out to me on LinkedIn or Facebook and pretend this blip hadn’t happened. The friends who had sacrificed their lives to care for me could go back to chasing promotions, raising kids, or planning girls’ weekends in Las Vegas.
In spite of the building excitement, I couldn’t understand why I felt even more broken and disoriented. Now that the doctors appointments had slowed and the physical treatment had almost finished, the ferocity of cancer’s emotional aftermath blindsided me. I didn’t want to be defined by the darkness I felt. I wanted a way to mark my freedom and take back my story. I wanted the people I loved to be proud of me for something other than crawling my way through treatment. I wanted to feel proud of me. As I searched for a way to feel inspired again, I found my silver lining in a volunteer program in South Africa.
Long before I boarded my flight, the experience stretched me. In order to ask for support with fund-raising to cover the costs, I had to acknowledge the deep emotional scars cancer had etched within me. I had to step way out of my comfort zone — both in fund-raising to go and in getting on a plane to a continent I had only ever read about. I had never raised money before and my stomach bottomed out when I sent the first email announcing my trip and began to share updates on social media. I explained how this experience could act as a reset in my life. How I wanted to turn my cancer story into something positive. How I wanted to get beyond my mess and heal by giving back.
The support flooded in. People I hadn’t heard from in over a year rallied around me with their donations and messages of encouragement. My friends helped me throw a fund-raiser. Suddenly we all had something positive to focus on — a way to jointly reclaim the future and soften the memories of the emergency-room trips, the tears, and the worries.
When I stepped on my flight, I carried the love and support of my entire community with me. Together, we turned the page to a fresh chapter in my life.
Terri Wingham completed cancer treatment more than eight years ago. Today, she spends most of her life living out of a suitcase while running programs around the world. Contact her through www.afreshchapter.com. This guest column appears through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for more than a million patients and caregivers.