9 Lessons From 2020 That I Already Knew, Thanks to Cancer
Updated: Jan 17, 2021
2020 seemed to come in quietly, then hit us over the head with one emotionally charged incident after another. First the pandemic and its isolation and fear, then the police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, which led to the protests for racial justice and a deepening divide over race and politics. Of course, 2020 threw in the presidential election, too. I'm not trying to make a political post; I'm simply illustrating how all of these filled us with enough anxiety, fear and tension to last a lifetime. It took a toll on our collective mental health.
For me, the pandemic started with a familiar feeling. I sensed the collective fear of the unknown, as society responded to the knowledge there was a killer disease amongst us that we knew little about. It could potentially strike anyone at any time. This sounded a lot like breast cancer to me. Sure, oncologists and researchers know about the disease. but I didn't know much about it when I got sick. And, when I was going through active treatment and was immunocompromised I was afraid to be in crowds for fear of catching a cold that could easily lead to pneumonia or something worse, simply because I could not fight it off. Having gone through this -- and my battle with cancer in general -- gave me the resilience I now used to remain calm during the early stages of the pandemic. I even wrote about it for Cancer Wellness magazine.
As time went on, of course it was difficult to remain so calm. I had challenging times. But, this past year reaffirmed many things I had learned through my breast cancer fight. Among those are:
Support is everything. When I went through active treatment, I relied on close friends and family, nurses at the cancer center, and in some cases, my neighbors. I shared my story with my Instagram and Facebook friends, partly because it allowed me to express and process my feelings, but also because I wanted to help others who may have been going through the same thing. It helps to relate to someone else's story; to not feel alone. I also relied on the pink sisters I met in Facebook groups. There, I felt safe among people who was experiencing what I was. We could talk about the dark reality of cancer while not concerning our family or other friends who it may have shocked or saddened. Each of these support systems was vital. So, too, was the support I found through Zoom art classes from Gilda's Club during the pandemic. I met weekly with a group of cancer survivors to make art. The connection was invaluable.
Things will get better. If you dwell on negative feelings it can hinder your healing. I knew when fighting cancer that if I let my emotions get the best of me, I would stop fighting. That was never in my game plan. I believe that for every bad thing that happens, a good one does. You just need to be open to it. You need to allow yourself to see it. You need to see the joy that comes during bad times.
We must address mental health. I did therapy during active treatment for breast cancer. Facing one's vulnerability and acknowledging death is scary. Therapy can help you sort out your feelings and process them. I saw during the pandemic that many people were not addressing their mental health. Tensions were high. They still are. Things have only gotten worse, in my opinion, and it can — and has — led to violence.
Ask for what you need. I had always been a self-sufficient person, almost feeling shameful if I couldn't handle everything or do it all by myself. Cancer taught me to throw that all out of the window. We were never meant to live entirely on our own, forgoing support from others. I learned to ask others for help. And, they always gave it to me. This lesson continues to help me every day.
Animals are the best. Okay, so I didn't learn this during active treatment. I already knew it. I grew up with animals all around me. But, when I was going through treatment, my awesome, sweet dog Max would lay his head on me as I stretched out across the couch after a long day of chemo. He could sense I was not feeling well and he was there to comfort me. He has continued to be there for me throughout the pandemic and the other horrible things during 2020.
Celebrate important moments in life. I learned to celebrate nearly every milestone as I went through active treatment and returned to "normal" life after it. I celebrated my last day of chemo on social media. I did so when I realized my eyebrows were growing back in. I did it again when I got my first haircut after chemo had caused my hair to fall out. I bought myself a cake when I had finished all of my reconstructive surgeries and my plastic surgeon released me from his care. These celebrations are rituals to commemorate big things in life. During the pandemic, I have continued to recognize important moments.
Never take one moment for granted. This goes without saying, but when you face a life-threatening disease, you realize how awesome your life is. You cherish every moment. Even though 2020 has had its challenges, there are still beautiful moments.
Never give up. This is perhaps the most important lesson breast cancer taught me, though in truth I've always been stubborn and determined. My cancer journey just amplified the need for perseverance.
You are your own best advocate. This goes without saying, but no one is more concerned about your health than you will (or should) be. This means you need to push for a second opinion, ask why you've been recommended a certain course of treatment and how it can affect you. You must do everything you can to safeguard and promote your own health. This is true for your life after active treatment, too, Eat healthy, stay active and take care of yourself. Be good to your body.
Each of these lessons has been a godsend. They have helped me through many challenges, and will continue to do so. And, there will be many more I will learn, especially as 2021 already seems to have brought with it many challenges; some that were unresolved issues from the year before. But, we will get through them — together.