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Picture Your Life After Cancer
By Karen Barrow
American Cancer SocietyCopyright © 2012 The New York Times
All rights reserved.
Life is different now because it is the only thing that matters after cancer. I don't worry about the small things anymore. I don't get annoyed by little problems that come my way. I love life, and I live it day by day. We can never know what will happen tomorrow, so make the most of today!
Raleigh, North Carolina
I enjoy life, and I appreciate my family and friends even more. Little things don't bother me as much, and the imminent birth of my first child is undoubtedly another reason I feel blessed to still be alive.
Somehow cancer became the best thing that ever happened to me because I needed a butt kicking that my older brother couldn't give me. Once I recovered, I started making the most of every minute I could. I guess I was trying to make up for spending over a year in bed. I've had a couple of setbacks and a few of my joints have been replaced, but 14 surgeries later, I'm still pushing along. Some people dread turning 30, but it looked like a starting line to me.
After cancer, I am vulnerable, soft, and emotional.
I am gritty, tough, brave, and bold.
I am afraid, and I am ready to kick some ass.
Cancer made me examine my deepest emotions and took me through my darkest times. Cancer has strengthened my relationships. Cancer has made me finally ready to go out there and live my life. I am not glad I had cancer, but, without it, I wouldn't be the me that I am today.
I was sentenced to have two types of cancer just one month after I retired at the age of 61. Thanks to two different operations, I could come back to my daily life. After two years, I started again to climb mountains. I would like to climb all of the 100 famous mountains in Japan. So far, I have climbed 56. This photo was taken on my 56th mountain, Yarigatake.
I "died" of cancer in 2004. Six months later, after a meticulous chemotherapy regimen, I was reborn into something remarkable. I have spent the years since then celebrating that giddy spring day. Today, I am love, hope, and joy — wisdom and strength.
Bath, New York
When I was preparing for a stem cell transplant to treat my leukemia, my wife, Cathy, bought this canoe. It is the best canoe in the world: a Minnesota II in graphite. Cathy said if I were to survive the transplant it would become my canoe, and we could keep paddling along together. Well, it's been almost six years now, and we have put over a thousand miles on the Min.
The thing is — mile by mile, year by year — it has become our boat, not just my boat. I guess that is what surviving is, getting back to us, not me.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I loved to sit around. Reading a book in a comfy chair with my cat was a perfect way to kill 8 or 10 hours. When my boys became toddlers and started running around, my sitting days ended, and I missed relaxing and being still.
Now that I have a legitimate excuse to be tired and sit down, I find that I don't want to sit so much anymore. I walk the dog. I cook dinner. I join committees. When I have the energy, and as my treatment schedule allows, I love to try new things that would have scared me before.
Although I still catch a healthy amount of good-natured ribbing from my family for my tendency to be a slug, we all know that I'm still here fighting, and I'm going to make the most of every minute.
Victoria Colliver Cautero
This photo is of me and my husband on our wedding day, just over three years after I finished chemotherapy and radiation for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I've always said that if cancer is a gift, please direct me to the returns line. With that said, I prefer to concentrate on all the blessings I have in my life and not what cancer has taken from me. Here's to new hair, a loving partner, wonderful friends and family, and radiating in a whole different way.
Sometimes life isn't that different, and I am still plodding through the day to day. But sometimes I am struck with a jolt of gratitude and joy that I am here, healthy, and happy. Doing handstands in a beautiful place can help me feel that way.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
After four years of treatment for thyroid cancer, which included three rounds of radiation, a total thyroidectomy, and a partial neck dissection, I found my voice!
My diagnosis at age 27 occurred when I was trying to get pregnant. Instead of motherhood and the trappings of married life, my cancer experience exposed the unhappiness in my marriage and a lack of fulfillment in my life. Through the treatment process, I myself went through a kind of rebirth.
Today, I am starting over as a single woman in a new city and I couldn't be happier. I got a puppy and decided that play is often more important than work. Every single day, I try to love myself and those around me better. I adore the long, thin scar across my neck; it is beautiful for all these reasons and more.
Meredith, New Hampshire
For myself and many others with advanced cancer, we remain in treatment, and there is no life after cancer. Instead, I have had to learn to live with my cancer. Rather than calling myself a survivor, which would seem to suggest that the battle is over, I say that I am surviving. I just celebrated surviving five years since my cancer diagnosis.
As someone living with a terminal illness, I am acutely aware that each and every day is a gift, and I have learned to focus on the simple wonders of being alive.
Los Angeles, California
As a high school teacher, one of my rules is transparency. I teach the fantastic subjects of art history and architecture, but I also teach something important by just being me — simply by example. My students learn that I grew up in the Tennessee of the Old South. They learn that I'm gay and comfortable with my sexuality. Recently, they also learned that I had a tumor on the base of my tongue from lymphoma — a story that announced itself with each word I mouthed.
For three months, they watched my face turn red and my energy fluctuate from the chemotherapy and radiation. Then, as if breaking out of a cocoon, my voice shed its muffle and returned to its normal clarity. Perhaps watching their teacher face cancer openly will give my students something that will help them should they ever need it.
After cancer, my husband and I bonded in a unique way. He made the daily journey for my treatments and never missed a doctor's appointment. Although I loved him madly before the diagnosis, his presence has brought me laughter and balance during the darkest of times.
New York, New York
I feel grateful that I have to worry about taking my medication. On time. Every day. For the rest of my life.
San Diego, California
It's pretty easy to use a picture to illustrate how life is different after cancer. This family picture should have our three kids in it, but our middle child Max passed away in 2008 at age 7 after a four-year battle with neuroblastoma. Instead of Max being between Nicky (left) and Hannah (right), the kids pose with Max's favorite stuffed animal. This is how we do our family photos now.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
When I first was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, my older daughter said to me, "You know, Mom, cancer sucks. But you're going to meet the most interesting people." What an understatement, on both counts. I am lucky that cancer continues to broaden my world more than it limits it. The strategy of finding out all I can about another person gives me focus when I'm feeling self-conscious or worried about my own future.
Like other survivors, I'm grateful every day. This Christmas card reminds me that when all else fails to banish my fears, dark humor and love help.
New Orleans, Louisiana
It's been 14 months since my surgery for renal cell carcinoma. I was lucky because my cancer seems to have been isolated in my left kidney.
Am I different now? I hope so.
I try to not sweat the small stuff. I usually say what is on my mind and don't hold on to resentment. I also try to enjoy life since I know that all of our lives are finite. It makes me do things now rather than when I have the time.
This picture was taken six weeks after my surgery while on a trip to my birthplace, New Orleans, where my daughter and I participated in a 10K race. After being an avid walker and runner for the past 23 years, this was the first race I completed. I figured if not now, then when? It was the beginning of the old me coming back to this world, where I hope to remain for a long time.
Someone once said that having cancer is like being part of a club, but with one hell of an initiation. I was initiated at the age of 31 with a breast cancer diagnosis.
One week before my double mastectomy, I ran my eighth marathon. This picture was taken nine weeks later at the Ragnar Relay Great River Race. It was my first race after surgery. I ran with a different body, but I was running again.
Since the diagnosis, I've learned to appreciate the good days and allow myself to have bad days, too. I don't stress over little things. Most important, I take time out of each day for myself. I plan to keep running throughout the rest of the reconstructive surgeries, and maybe some day I'll make it into the 50 states marathon club. The initiation will be hard, but at least this time, it will be my decision.
My life has been incredibly confusing since cancer. Before cancer, I felt like I had everything worked out. I knew what I wanted to do after college, where I was going in life, and what I wanted from it. Being diagnosed with cancer was like the bottom dropping out from under me. I've been trying to put it all back together ever since. I haven't been able to yet, but I'm confident that one day I will. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later.
I usually like to have a good idea of what I'm getting myself into, and cancer obviously crashes the predictability party. So I'm attempting to embrace the uncertainty of life and laugh at pretty much everything.
My cancer experience was recent, and I still feel like the whole thing was a bad dream, albeit a really vivid one with lots of medical terminology and expensive tests. Some days, I forget that my brand of cancer has a high recurrence rate, and that I'll spend the rest of my days diligently visiting the oncologist if I want to keep on top of it.
For now, I'm just happy to be here, even though I'll never trust my body 100 percent, knowing it has these blueprints in a file somewhere.
My plan? Eat my broccoli. Go to Paris. Love my partner, my friends, and my family. And keep my fingers crossed.
After facing my mortality, I lost my faith in God and my belief in the afterlife. Heaven is here and now. Embrace it and revel in its magnificence!
I think life after cancer is a lot like life after remarriage. You may think everything will change and for a while it might, but you can't fundamentally change who you are and neither can cancer. In the end, you remain who you were. How could you not?
I think heroic stories are romantic rationalizations and are a bit self-indulgent. You're lucky to be alive, and you ought to leave it at that.
The only people changed by cancer are the ones it kills. I'm lucky it didn't kill me. Twenty years ago, I was pretty self-conscious about my scar, and now I have no problem sharing it publicly. I suppose that is a change if you insist on one, but it is a change necessitated only by the cancer itself.
I find that I don't worry about the small things as much anymore. It doesn't matter that my house isn't clean, or that I don't have the time to cook dinner every night. And my life doesn't revolve around my job anymore. I leave work at a decent hour so that I can live my life, train for triathlons, and spend time with my family. My husband and I are thinking of retiring early — to enjoy LIFE!
Life is more intense and sweeter — and more tiring than before. It's still so new to me that I don't quite know what to do, but I do know that I never want to go back.
I appreciate others more, and I try to help them with their problems. I am a volunteer at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, a wonderful cancer hospital where I was treated. I strive to fill every minute and enjoy life, family, and friends to the fullest possible extent. Having cancer made me a different person. Surviving it gave me a better life.
Nobody on this planet gets out of here without a bag of crap, as I like to call it. We all carry around an invisible suitcase with our story in it. Cancer is no different. Cancer is just part of my life story. It's a chapter, but it's not the whole book. I will not let it define me.
It has been almost four years since I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 30. Since then, I've climbed mountains, gone back to graduate school, received a promotion, adopted my youngest son, and traveled far and wide. Oh, and being bald isn't as bad as everyone says it is.
After my cancer diagnosis in 2008, I retired. After I got better, I started to travel and went to Bali with my son in 2009. I've become more spiritual and aware of our connection to all things. I don't stress out anymore, and I try to accept whatever happens without judgment. If I don't like what has happened, I try to change it, but I don't judge.
We like to say that our lives have been enriched by having cancer, but that's just something we tell ourselves so we can go on despite our losses.
A Coruña, Spain
Life after cancer is great. I found a new sense of independence by moving to New York City just one week after my last chemotherapy session. I also traveled to Europe for spring break to visit two close friends who were studying in Spain.
This picture shows my college roommate, Florette, and me having fun at a playground in Galicia's beach city of A Coruña.
For me, life after cancer is vivid, and I feel awake in a way that I didn't before cancer. I feel the breezes more fully, see my loved ones more truly, and shed layers of my self-consciousness more easily.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Every day, and I mean every single day, is a blessing after having cancer.
I have never been the type of person to have a cause, but as I lay in bed, unable to get up during chemotherapy, I decided that if I survived, my life needed to be about more than just me. I have become dedicated to doing all I can to find a cure for breast cancer. I started Team Grand Canyon at the Arizona Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure. Last year we had just three members, but we raised over $16,000. This year, we hope to have 10 members and raise over $25,000.
I've learned to not sweat the small stuff, and if you, your friends, and your family are healthy, then everything else is truly just small stuff. Go Team Grand Canyon!
Westmont, New Jersey
Two and a half years ago, cancer turned my world upside down, robbing me of my health and my spirit. Last week, I was rock climbing in Moab, Utah, with an amazing group called First Descents. For those of you in the fight, stay strong. I have reclaimed my body and soul, and you can, too.
Excerpted from Picture Your Life After Cancer by Karen Barrow. Copyright © 2012 The New York Times. Excerpted by permission of American Cancer Society.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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