A mother of two, Jenn McRobbie was enjoying life until she turned 38 and noticed one of her breasts looked different. The diagnosis confirmed her worst fear: cancer. Following a mastectomy and chemo, she’s been given the all-clear. She tells us how it feels to be a cancer survivor…
It used to be that upon waking, all I could think focus on was the list of things I needed to accomplish that day. Celebrating the simple fact that I woke up didn’t even cross my mind. I took it for granted. But things are different now. Every morning I get to unwrap this gift of being alive. And this gift of feeling alive came from an unlikely source for me — a diagnosis of breast cancer.
In October 2013, I noticed that there were some changes to my right nipple. Being that I was 38 years old and had breastfed two kids, I really just thought age and time were changing my body. I mean, show me a woman whose body hasn’t begun changing as they approach 40 and I’ll show you a unicorn with wings.
When I went to my OBGYN for my annual appointment, however, everything changed. As soon as I opened my paper top, my doctor immediately pointed at my breast and said, “Has that always been like that?” I was taken aback. “No,” I responded, “I thought I would have you look at it.”
That was the beginning of the end, so to speak. My doctor didn’t feel anything (cue “relief”) in my breast but sent me to get a mammogram anyway (cue “abject fear”). I’d never had a mammogram before. I wasn’t prepared for the intense feelings that come with standing exposed before a giant machine with two clear plastic sheets that would soon smash my breast paper-thin while I simultaneously tried to hold my breath and not cry. I wasn’t prepared for the mammography tech to make a “hmmmm” noise as she observed my images. I wasn’t prepared for the tech to tell me to wait around because they needed to do an ultrasound right away. I started immediately trying to work a deal: “Ok, God … let’s just make this no big deal, shall we?”
It’s strange. Some moments I recall so vividly. Others are such a blur. I could tell you all of the things I remember, obviously, but it’s the things that I’ve forgotten that really bother me. Like, what did the radiologist say to me, exactly, about the ultrasound? What did my husband say when I called him in tears? These memories are clouded, perhaps for good reason. I will never know.
What is clear to me now, and will remain clear for the rest of my life, is that I had cancer. Yes, cancer. At 38 years old. There is no feeling I can liken this to. There is no way for me to really explain what that feels like. But, I try. I try to tell others what it’s like because that’s how I heal myself and how I hope to heal the world (or at least my small part of the world).
It may seem curious that I need to re-live my fear and sadness in order to heal from it. But, I think that’s because I couldn’t really feel those feelings at the time they were actually happening. See, during it all, I tucked away all my emotions. I put them in a little box and stuffed them as far back in the closet of my mind as I possibly could. I couldn’t even begin to understand how that would impact me, but it’s the only way I knew how to survive.
What’s exceptionally ironic about all of that is that I’m a life coach, for goodness sake! I help people confront their fears and terrors and “shoulds” and “have-tos” on a regular basis. But, when it came time for me to do so, I closed up shop and just prayed for the best.
I’m now a cancer survivor
I’m thrilled to report that I’m currently cancer-free. I’m a cancer survivor. I have my fair share of scars – physical (I had a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I’m also on endocrine therapy for the next 10 years) and emotional. But, at least for now, I’m without cancer.
Opening up that little mental box of emotions that I’d kept closed throughout my treatment was overwhelming. But here’s the interesting thing: there were things in that box that I didn’t even know existed. Like a joy for life. It actually feels amazing to wake up every morning now! Can you imagine that? That doesn’t mean that 30 seconds later I’m not back on the list of things that I have to do that day. But the feeling is there now and it is undeniable.
The other little surprise that has come from this is that it is decidedly necessary for me to share my experience and help others unpack their own little boxes of emotion. Whether those boxes are from a crazy childhood or an illness or just because you’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel, my joy for life is something that I feel must be shared with the world. And so I do.
When I go to sleep at night, there is always a moment, right before I drift off, where I have this deep feeling — this immense gratitude. It comes from the part of me that knows that on that day — and every day — I’ve tried to help someone. Whether it was holding open a door or coaching a client through her personal crisis, I’ve done what I could to make someone’s day better. And when you go to sleep with that feeling, you can wake up feeling glad to be alive.
Jenn McRobbie is a life coach, speaker and author. Jenn’s Amazon best-selling book, Why is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When a Friend is in Crisis is a resource for friends who feel lost during a crisis. It is her treatise on empowering friends to rise and lift each other. Jenn wants people to see their value. How important they are — and how much they are loved.
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Are you a cancer survivor? Or do you have a friend or family member who is? Can you relate to what Jenn describes above?