Being told you have cancer can mean a lot to different people. But when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer five years ago, I became fearless. Other than my disease, I am afraid of nothing and no one else. Because of my disease and the recognition that life is short, I also learned to love differently.
That didn’t happen immediately, though—it took a while for those lessons to sink in—because my first reaction was fear. When I heard the words from the doctor, the faces of my kids, my husband, and family crossed my mind within the seconds that followed. What does the future hold for them, without me there? My kids were so young and didn’t know what was going on, but I was afraid for them.
After my diagnosis, I decided that I was going to try to live as normally as I could. So each morning between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. I’d get up and go to Dunkin’ Donuts to work. I worked to financially support my family, but also because giving up on the normal things in my life was not an option. If I did that, I knew things would go downhill from there. I was willing to fight any fight I had to.
As I went about my daily routines, my diagnosis made me start to view life in another way. The prospect of possibly dying made me realize that death is a con-artist. I’d been building my life around the assumption that I had time. But really, I was just borrowing it on tenuous terms. Death is waiting to pull the rug out from under all of us.
But instead of letting this get me down, I chose to be optimistic and to live “carpe diem,” seizing the day. It put things in perspective for me and helped me to be grateful for things big and small. Sure the love of my family and friends is huge. But I also love the smell of the rain, the smell of my freshly cut grass, the look of every color coming together to make the sunset. These moments remind me that I’m alive. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true, and I came to appreciate the gift of life even more.
Before I had cancer not only did I not appreciate the little things, but I got upset over little things. After my diagnosis I started to change my attitude: “My kids just wiped spaghetti sauce on my white shirt? Oh well.” I wanted to show my child it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t want to leave a memory of me getting upset about it and punishing them, when they was just feeling the need to show me their love with a hug.
Ultimately, cancer taught me that it’s that love that matters most of all. I began to love more purely and to give of myself with no expectations. I was living with the mindset that it could be my last day, and so I was willing to give everything I had left in me to everyone that mattered. And what I’ve found is that the love I give is returned to me in new and beautiful ways. It is returned to me in smiles, and in the joy I could fill people’s hearts with every day, even my customers at work. Being open to the joy that could pass from one person to another, even in the midst of disease and hardship, made my heart a little fuller.
I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. But it did teach me to live well in spite of fear and to not let anything inhibit me from finding happiness by loving those around me and enjoying the small moments of life. While looking at death’s door, I learned to live again.