How Breast Cancer Changed My Perspective and Appreciation for Life

Breast Cancer
My friend and hero, Marina.

My doctor tried to soften the blow of the bad news by telling me that I caught it early.

Then I heard the words that would terrify and frighten anyone.

The diagnosis: breast cancer.

Imagine receiving this news just 3 weeks after your dad had passed away.

I decided not to tell my mom about my diagnosis right away because she was in a vulnerable place, already having lost her life partner. I also wanted to have all the answers to any questions my Mom would have before I told her about the diagnosis.

After some tests were done, I sighed a little with relief when I discovered that the breast cancer was at Stage 1 and was the size of a small coin.

Although the doctor tried to assuage my fears by confidently telling me my life wasn’t in danger, the next year was not an easy one.

My doctor told me I needed to have a mastectomy (breast removal surgery) rather than a lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery). I’m glad that decision was made for me and I didn’t have to make it myself.

My cancer journey began with surgery, followed up by chemotherapy starting approximately 2 months after my surgery.

The doctor explained that I needed additional chemotherapy because I was very young. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer later in life (with the highest percentage of women being diagnosed in their 60s and 70s).

Statistically speaking, I still had a long life ahead of me, which meant I had a longer period of time in which the cancer could return. So chemo was supposed to reduce that chance of reoccurrence as much as possible.

I was the youngest patient in the room receiving chemo treatment, so I imagined I could handle it.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Chemo kicked. My. Butt.

Within 24 hours of my first round of a chemo session, my stomach and back were throbbing with pain.

I had no appetite and felt exhausted.

Within 48 hours, I had blurry vision and was getting hot flashes. Within 72 hours, all of my joints ached and I felt like a 90-year-old woman, and I had difficulty processing thoughts. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion.

Losing my hair.

But with all of those unpleasant side effects, what I feared most was the day my hair would start falling out.

My doctor informed me it would take about 2 weeks for my hair to start falling out, so I waited anxiously.

I remember the first huge clump of hair falling out, enough to fill my entire fist. If I had been in denial up to that point, it stopped that day. I really was sick.

I decided to shave my head rather than waiting for the rest of my hair to fall out. It was the only thing I could do to gain back some of the control I had lost.

I recalled so many times in the past where I complained about having a bad hair day. It seemed so trivial now as I was looking at myself in the mirror with barely any hair.

Healing my body. Changing my outlook.

My chemotherapy sessions, treatment and healing continued over the next year.

Eventually my hair grew back, the stomach pains subsided, and I got my energy back. Physically, I was starting to look like the old me.

But the inside is where I experienced the most unexpected changes and growth.

I was different. Some people say that getting cancer didn’t change them. Well, that wasn’t the case for me.

Cancer changed me. And not in a bad way either.

Cancer opened my eyes.

It taught me the importance of gratitude.

When I started feeling physically better, I started appreciating the simple things in life.

Meals, phone calls to friends, going for a walk … all of these things have more meaning than they did before.

It’s amazing how being grateful started a chain reaction with regards to other aspects of my life.

I smile more, gossip less, and I’ve become more active and adventurous in life.

When you get a glimpse of how fragile and painful life can be, you begin to appreciate and embrace it a lot more.

Besides being more grateful, I have also learned to be more “selfish”.

Okay, it’s not really being selfish as much as I am now more aware of what I want, and I don’t ignore those feelings.

It’s surprising what I used to do out of obligation or guilt to the point where it caused me stress.

For example, I maintained friendships that weren’t healthy. That’s no longer the case. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I say “no” more often.

Unfortunately, I do not have any tips on how to reach this peace that I have found. There’s no 10-step process that I can recite.

All I know is that I don’t think I could have gained this understanding without being fully stripped down, and that’s the irony.

Am I glad that I got cancer? No.

Did I get something beautiful out of this that I wouldn’t have discovered any other way? I think so.

I went through a lot of obstacles that year, but through it all, I have learned to love my life, appreciate the small things and value myself more than ever.

Oh, and I do have a little advice – be wary of who you sit next to on the first day of class. For example, you could start your first day of law school sitting next to someone named “Vishnu” and be pestered into writing a blog post for him ten years later.

Marina is not a blogger and never could have imagined herself sharing such a personal essay. (Thank you for your inspiration and courage, Marina 🙂 )

Have you survived a horrific illness or health problem? What were some of the lessons your injury, illness or disease taught you? Please share in the comments section below.

32 Comments

  1. Marina. Your post made me cry. My dad had cancer and I’ve only experienced it as an outsider. Reading this has given more more insight into what he was feeling. Thank you for this.

    This takes me back to ‘live each day like it’s your last’ and other such ‘appreciate life’ quotes are only worth the theory they present. It’s only when the reality hits you that you realise what it really means.

    There are lessons here we can all learn, even IF there isn’t a 10-step process clearly outlined!

    Thank you so much for having the courage to write this.

    1. Thank you for sharing that this post touched you, Razwana, as it did for me.

      You’re right – Marina’s story reminds us the reality and truths behind the quotes to live everyday to the fullest. She is definitely doing more so now after overcoming cancer.

      As Marina points out below, her story helps remind all of us we are not alone in our journeys.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Marina! It was inspiring, I can understand what you are going through as I was with my dear aunt when she was diagnosed with leukemia, her life was inspiring to all of us as she fought the battle alone and came as a new lady with positive thoughts, attitude. We were all surprised to see her new life and her zeal to enjoy the life every moment.

    She is still inspiring for us and we take her life to be an example and take her words to show gratitude towards all the things we have in our life.

    1. Thank you Sridevi for sharing the courage of your Aunt and how she touched your entire family. Often it takes life changing/altering experiences like Marina’s and your Aunt’s to give us all new perspective, priorities in life and a reminder to live every moment to the fullest.

      As Marina points out below, when these stories are shared, we realize we are each not alone. Thank you again for your comment.

  3. I always avoid reading such stories, they break my heart, they fail to inspire me but I don’t know why I have read it to the end. One of my very dear childhood friends passed through all this misery and pain as Marina but I had never felt that pain so intensely as today, after reading this account.

    However, I salute your friend, Vishnu who could put it into words and share this story with us. Thanks Vishnu…Please convey my wishes to Marina and tell her to go for regular check ups as this kind of cancer can relapse.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your friend’s pain, Balroop, but thank you for sharing her experiences. And I know how difficult it can be read about pain and struggle.

      Marina’s reading all the comments so I’m sure your good wishes will be warmly received.

      As she says here in the comments, these stories help us see the commonality and togetherness of everyone. Thank you.

  4. Hi everyone. Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Cancer has touched almost everyone’s life in some way and everyone’s story is so unique. Vishnu encouraged me to write about my story and I am glad he did. Having a discussion like this, helps remind people they are not alone.

    1. Thank you for sharing your cancer journey to recovery, Marina. Your story teaches me that even in the most difficult circumstances, there are lessons to be learned and truths to be unconvered.

      Your guest post is much appreciated!

  5. Thank you, Marina, for having the courage and caring to share your story. With you, I believe that appreciating and being grateful for even the smallest of things in our lives is what brings true happiness to our hearts. So glad that your story is one of healing and restoration. God bless you!

  6. Thanks for sharing this powerful story! I loved the raw honesty that acknowledged the pain AND the lessons that came of it. Gratitude for our spiritual assignments is such a hard lesson. I really loved Marina’s comment on how being selfish isn’t selfish. That’s definitely something I’m learning right now. Thanks again for sharing 🙂
    All the best,
    Amita

  7. Marina you’re amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your very personal story with us. Surprisingly I actually feel lighter reading it, like I can go about my day with permission to just focus on the beautiful little things that make life so special, and let all the stress go. Thank you for that! Warm wishes and gratitude, Wendy

  8. Dear Marina,

    I want to let you know how deeply moved I am by the openness with which you have written this blog post. It’s truly inspiring, every word of it. Thank you so much for writing this.

    There are specific points that you have mentioned here which I could deeply relate to:

    For example, you stated “I maintained friendships that weren’t healthy. That’s no longer the case. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t do it. I say “no” more often.” I LOVED the honesty and sincerity with which you said this because healthy friendships are rare to find and those we maintain tend to drain us out at an emotional level and we hardly say ‘No’. It takes courage to do so and you have done it! Yay!

    A most touching point that you wrote because you have experienced it first hand “All I know is that I don’t think I could have gained this understanding without being fully stripped down, and that’s the irony.” Beautifully written.

    Then the question and answer that brought tears to my eyes as I read it:

    ‘Am I glad that I got cancer? No.

    Did I get something beautiful out of this that I wouldn’t have discovered any other way? I think so.’

    Beautifully written, brilliant and heart warming. Marina, I am so glad that Vishnu persuaded you to write about topics that you feel strongly about. I’d love to read more blog posts from you hopefully soon.

    Sending you lots of positive healing energy and tons of love from across the continent, Marina. You are amazing and beautiful. Keep writing, please!

    1. Dear Swapna,

      I just wanted to let you know I read your response and wanted to thank you personally.

      – Marina

      1. Thank you for your kind words and reflections Swapna. I too think Marina should be writing more! I’ll see what I, I mean we, can do 🙂

  9. Thank you Marina for sharing your personal journey. “Stripped down” is the first step to “Soaring high”.
    Thanks Vishnu for persuading Marina to write this.

    1. hahah not so easy Bjorn! See you in Asia before the end of the year and hopefully we can catch up in Southern California before your travels. Looking forward to it and glad you were inspired by this post.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing your story Marina 🙂 I can’t imagine how hard it must be to open up and share it in front of so many people. Your words changed my day.

    Vishnu, I’m happy I stumbled upon your blog my friend. I can’t wait to read what you have in store 🙂

    1. Thank you Christ for your feedback and for your sharing your thoughts on Marina’s post. Looking forward to checking your blog out too. Welcome to Vishnu’s Virtues where everything and nothing exists. (kidding 🙂 )

      1. Chris – I’m not sure if you’re offended or took it as a compliment. I didn’t mean to call you Christ. lol that was a typo!

  11. This is a very inspiring story. Cancer would be such a difficult thing to go through. My wife is a cancer nurse. In fact she is getting a PhD in oncology nursing right now. She’s told me so many stories about people going through chemotherapy that just break my heart. Chemotherapy is just so difficult even if you’re young and physically strong.

    I’m so glad that you got something positive out of it. Turning a bad situation like this and building a life of gratitude and learning to love life is wonderful. It’s too bad you had to go through all that pain to get there. Still, things could have gone worse.

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