I thought pushing two monster-sized babies from my body would be the worst I'd endure in my life. I was wrong. Apparently, birthing a 10 pound, 9 ounce boy and then his 10 pound, 2 ounce brother two years later was not test enough for me, because just 18 months after the younger guy arrived in the world, I found a cancerous tumor in my left breast while washing in the shower. The mass was nothing like my newborn children -- it was small, aggressive, and completely unwanted.
I pretty much knew the moment my hand first slid over my lump in November 2004 that it was breast cancer. Family and friends tried to convince me otherwise, because that's what loved ones do, but my gut told me I was embarking on a horrible path. It was right -- sort of. There was surgery, plus a nasty skin reaction to the tape that bandaged my parts, and four doses of chemotherapy, given every two weeks and resulting in two scary hospital stays and one blood transfusion. Then radiation, five days per week for six weeks, and physical therapy, psychotherapy, and anti-depressants, too. At age 34, I was sick, bald, bloated, and afraid I would die before my boys could grow up.
Cancer -- yes, horrible. But the horror didn't last for long.
I'm not exactly sure when or how it happened, but eventually, I began viewing my disease as both horrible and wonderful. Now, I had no grand plan for surviving cancer with a positive mindset -- I wasn't even sure I would survive it -- but I do have a few guesses about what helped me cope with hope, and not despair.
Cancer made me cry, but not nearly as much as the kindness of others did. I was never more emotional than when considering the outpouring of love and support that overwhelmed me. How could I not be motivated by bunches of people gushing about my strength and delivering me chili, tulips, brownies, cozy yellow socks, and a handmade quilt? The people in my life helped me dig out of doom and gloom. Then, I started taking matters into my own hands.
I began with a blog. "A what?" I asked my tech-savvy husband who suggested I start one. It's like a website, he told me, where I could document my progress for others to read. It would cut down on phone calls and emails and repeating my story over and over again -- I liked that. And so was born my Breast Cancer blog, where I wrote my first post on December 21, 2004. More than six years of writing, and I now realize blogging has become so much more than just a means of communicating health updates. It's been excellent therapy and the best way to reach out to others in need.
Nothing pushes me to heal more than helping someone else. It's why my kids and I volunteer at our local Humane Society -- walking needy pups and snuggling neglected cats lifts our spirits. "Mom, we helped five dogs today!" announced my 7-year-old after a recent shift. Bubbling over with contentment, my boy felt just like I do when I mail off my wigs and care packages to friends who need them, mentor newly diagnosed women struggling to find direction, and connect survivors with folks who can offer insight I don't have. Helping gives me a purpose other than worrying about myself, it puts my own personal condition in perspective, and it gives me the chance to spread the warmth that always chokes me up.
"The way I see it, if I were to not exercise, it would be like taking a doctor's prescription, crumbling it up, and tossing it in the trash," I wrote in a guest post for a fitness blogger friend. You see, research tells me that five vigorous hours of exercise a week can cut my chances of recurrence by something like 50 percent, and there's really no better reason than that for living strong. That's why I cycle through all sorts of fitness feats -- walking, running, swimming, biking -- and while I don't claim to be a hard-core athlete, and I admit to periods of slacking, I am committed to staying fit for the long haul. I owe it to my body and my state of mind.
I won't say eating healthy is always easy -- put a pan of brownies in front of me, and my urge is to inhale the whole thing -- but just like working out can help save my life, I believe good nutrition can, too, and that's why I don't drink soda or eat red meat, I limit my sugar intake (mostly), and I try to ingest lots of fruits, veggies, and lean protein. I maintain a healthy weight, I pay attention to my cholesterol numbers, and you know what? There's something very empowering about taking charge of my body. It's like my weapon against a disease I don't ever want to return.
Cancer gave me a gift -- a writing career. About 18 months after launching my blog, editors started finding me and asking me to write about my journey. It started with AOL's now-retired That Cancer Blog, and then I moved over to a sister site, That's Fit. Now, I work for AOL's Seed.com. I've gone on assignment to Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. (that's where I learned the value of fitness and food), written for Family Circle and Coping With Cancer magazines, and shared my words all over the Internet. My days are filled with building stories in the mornings and playing with my kids in the afternoons -- I can't think of a more satisfying arrangement.
All those years ago, I thought cancer was a curse -- a horrible invasion that would surely ruin my life. Today, I think cancer was just a hurdle, a blip on the screen of life -- a life that, right now, is pretty darn wonderful.
Jacki Donaldson is a wife, mom, and freelance writer and editor. When she's not blogging breast cancer at cancerspot.org, she's usually spilling secrets about her kids at bravingboys.org and journaling her fresh starts at projectsquareone.wordpress.com.