There is a saying: “Life Happens When You’re Busy Making Other Plans.” This couldn’t be more true. It was November 1st, 2018 and I was on my way into Oakville for my newly formed Business Leaders Mastermind Group. This was our second meeting and I was very excited to be facilitating this program once again. It was about 8:30 am and as I was approaching the Burlington Skyway, I received a call. It was from my doctor’s office informing me my test results from the previous day were in and she needed to see me, immediately. 

As I listened, my heart sank as it’s never good news when the doctor requests to see you.  Since my doctor was located in Niagara and I was headed for Oakville, I couldn’t make an appointment until later that afternoon. That left me with 6 hours of waiting, wondering and worrying. What could it be? I felt fine, so what was so urgent that I needed to be seen immediately?  While at my office in Oakville, I tried to distract myself and concentrate on the Mastermind Group, pretending that nothing was wrong. 

2 pm finally came and I was sitting in my doctor’s office listening to her, trying to comprehend what I was hearing. Everything stopped. Time seemed to stand still. She was very quick and direct. “Your tests showed possible ovarian cancer but we need to send you for more testing to be sure.” Next followed some blood work. There is a special blood test for ovarian cancer called the CA 125. It’s a cancer marker that measures the amount of protein (cancer antigen 125) in your blood. I took the test and went home. Next came telling my husband. How do you tell someone you have cancer?  The thought completely consumed me and brought me to my knees.

From that moment on, I was in a state of shock. How could this be happening to me?  One minute I’m fine, living my most wonderful life, and the next, I’m receiving a cancer diagnosis! My husband and I sat on the couch for hours crying and hugging each other. Luckily, both our kids were not living at home at the time and since the tests were inconclusive, we decided it would be best to hold off in saying anything until we had more information.

My life from that moment on has never been the same. And even though I was one of the lucky ones, for which I am truly grateful, my strength, courage and resilience has been tested. I have been described by some people as strong, unstoppable, driven, passionate, stubborn (or persistent as I like to call it) and even resilient. I certainly didn’t feel any of those things in the days and months following. We’d all like to say that when trauma or tragedy occurs, we will rise to the challenge but what does that really mean? 

Before my cancer journey, if I was asked to describe what bravery looks like, I probably would have said someone who faces challenges and uncertainty with grace, dignity and a sense of calm. While I think those are certainly admirable qualities, my perception has also expanded. Bravery or resilience doesn’t mean a person doesn’t experience sadness or even despair. Most people, when faced with serious difficulties such as loss, grief, and illness react to such circumstances with a flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Yet, as life goes on, people generally learn to adapt well to life changing situations and stressful conditions. My journey has taught me that resilience or bravery is not a trait that people have or don’t have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed.

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully they will help you as well.

6 Things my cancer journey has taught me about being resilient and brave:

  1. Be Honest About How You Feel – admitting how I feel rather than pretending that everything is okay when it’s not was a crucial first step. In the past when something was wrong, I would tend to deny or downplay my feelings. I’ve learned that acknowledging my true feelings, whether that be through journaling or talking with trusted friends or family members with self compassion and non-judgement was extremely helpful.
  2. Ask for Help – When I first found out I had cancer, I reached out to a friend who had also gone through her own cancer journey and the one thing she said to me was don’t be afraid to ask for help. At the time I thought, no problem. I do this anyway but I later found out, I actually didn’t. What is it about asking for help that is so difficult? It could be a feeling of weakness or admitting you are not capable. Maybe it’s a feeling of guilt or not wanting to feel like a burden. Whatever it is, it’s important to let go of that story and reach out. Whether that be to talk through your feelings or getting physical assistance with household chores, asking for help can provide a new perspective, relieve tension and set a course for a practice in humility.
  3. Find Your Support Network – Being surrounded by people who love and support you is critical. I know my journey would have been that much more difficult if I wasn’t surrounded by loved ones. And, my support network grew to others as well, such as therapists and other cancer survivors.
  4. Accept that Change is a Part of Life – Letting go of what was and accepting what is was difficult but very important. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events.
  5. Move Towards Your Goals – One of the most helpful exercises my coach had me do was develop some realistic goals. To do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?
  6. Be Grateful – In times of despair, its easy to be negative, angry and resentful. And as difficult as my journey was (and is), I tried to remain grateful for all the wonderful things I had. Establishing a daily practice of gratitude was extremely helpful in shifting my perspective and mood and allowed me to look beyond the present moment.

As difficult as this journey has been, I’m choosing to use this experience to deepen the learning about myself. I know I have grown in ways that I probably would not have experienced without this detour. And while my life is forever changed, I am truly grateful for everything I have gained, especially my heightened appreciation for life.

Rather than being paralyzed by life changing situations, I invite you to take action. Whether you are experiencing job loss, loss of a loved one, or your own health challenges, one step at a time is all it takes to let the breaking point strengthen your resilience and launch you into enlightenment. If I can be of any assistance, please contact me.