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What Breast Cancer Taught Me

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Cancer changes you – which could be good or bad. But when you go through something like that, you can choose to learn some valuable lessons. Here’s what breast cancer taught me.

January 1st 2012… I was living the American Dream. Married to my college sweetheart with two spunky boys, a successful legal career, and all the trappings of success (big house, nice car, making good money and so on).

Until a bomb went off a few weeks later that changed everything, and can be summed up in just two words: BREAST CANCER.

And not just any breast cancer. Mine was aggressive, with high mortality and recurrence rates. It was growing so fast the doctors initially assumed it had spread (which would have been a death sentence).

Thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread – I caught it early. But I didn’t know that at the outset, and there was still risk that treatment wouldn’t be successful. I remember envisioning my funeral in those early days, wondering who might attend and what they’d say about me.

It’s been more than 10 years. I’m still here, now cancer-free. But I’m not free from the impact of having had cancer. Which is (perhaps surprising to hear) a good thing, and why I’m here to share what breast cancer taught me.

Cancer changes everyone it touches.

There is life before diagnosis and life after it. And life after a cancer diagnosis is never the same. Because YOU aren’t the same.

I’m the oldest of five. As the oldest, I’ve always been the go-to sibling for advice and support. Even my parents would seek me out for guidance. And boy did I thrive in this role. I loved being thought of as the one with all the answers and who always had it together.

Suddenly being the patient who was weak from treatment and scared about the potential outcome was…hard, uncomfortable, distressing. I’m not sure there’s a word that encompasses quite how that felt.

All I knew is I couldn’t show vulnerability. Heck, I didn’t want to BE vulnerable. I hated that I was.

And so…

I told people I felt good (even when I felt wretched and was obviously lying). I claimed I was taking time for me and learning to live life more fully (even though I was obsessively worrying I would soon die). And I wore a fake smile (while mentally arguing – and trying to bargain – with God over my situation).

I was a hot mess, lying to myself and everyone else. What made that even worse was no one was fooled.

Faking how you feel is exhausting.

And I was draining myself dry as a result.

One day, while crying on the bathroom floor I realized that I needed to stop. To let go. [Having the epiphany of the need to let go was lesson 1 on the list of what breast cancer taught me].

And I finally let go.

Up until this point, I didn’t understand what it meant to let go. And I certainly didn’t know how to begin to do it. I was the ultimate control freak (we lawyers are like that). But I knew at once what it meant when I most needed to do it.

Letting go is about accepting what is.

I let go of:

  • Trying to control my circumstances and how others viewed me. Because I couldn’t truly control those things.
  • Holding in my emotions. I felt how I felt, and it was time to acknowledge how I felt and give myself permission to feel it all (and admit it to others).
  • Needing to find a silver-lining in everything that occurred. Instead, I embraced gratitude for the things I was truly grateful for (even the small, simple things). These were real and didn’t mean that the bad stuff didn’t exist. They could all coexist at the same time.

I finally got to a place where I could just… BE. Without pretending to feel differently or trying to ignore my fears. Learning what to let go of was lesson 2 on the list of what breast cancer taught me.

When you let go, you open up to receiving what you need.

Let me be clear about something. Letting go wasn’t easy. It felt uncomfortable. But over time, this discomfort becomes the norm. Because the fact is human beings are vulnerable (even when things are going well).

And I started to feel less drained. Even regained some energy. Not only did the world not come crashing down but I started to feel better by letting go (for lesson 3).

This opened me up to accepting help from others. Something I didn’t realize I’d been refusing. Which enabled me to be further strengthened through their gifts.

Connection during vulnerability makes you stronger.

The point of living is to love one another and connect with our fellow man. But there’s more to it than extending help and love to others when they need you. Because it’s a two-way street.

Deep connections are made when you reciprocate by allowing others to bestow their gifts upon you. Especially when you’re more vulnerable.

Showing vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It takes courage to do it. And it’s necessary to be the person you’re meant to be.

  • Mentally strong.
  • Resilient.
  • Happy.

Besides, as noted above, vulnerability is a fact. Refusing and/or ignoring it is the real weakness. [Check off lessons 4, 5 and 6 on the list of what breast cancer taught me].

Breast cancer gave me the opportunity to see (with crystal clarity) how beautiful people can be. I was strengthened by friends, family and acquaintances. I learned from them – and these experiences. I continue to be inspired by those who stepped up.

Am I happy to have had cancer? No! And yet…

I am thankful for what breast cancer taught me.

Because I’m better for for these lessons. I know know:

  • What I do and don’t have control over (and how to take control over the things I can).
  • How to let go.
  • What courage means.
  • How to embrace my vulnerability and build resilience.
  • When, why and how to accept help from others.
  • Where deep connection comes from.

I wouldn’t have learned these lessons without having had this experience.

And one final note about what breast cancer taught me: that life is messy. And that messiness brings with it beauty (if you’re willing to embrace and accept it). It’s part of the tapestry of life.

Are you ready to embrace your vulnerability and see where it leads you? I sincerely hope you do.

XO,

Heather

Embrace vulnerability, let go and build resilience with the following resources:

5 Traits of Genuinely Happy People (Article)

Leaving Law Behind (My Story) (Life & Law Podcast)

Why Resiliency Is So Important (Life & Law Podcast)

Managing Emotions Effectively (Life & Law Podcast)

Science-Backed Strategies To Rewire Your Mind To Be Calm, Confident And In Control (of What You CAN Control) (FREE Resource)

 


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Hey there, I’m Heather

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FORMER BIGLAW LAWYER (FOR 18+ YEARS)

LAWYER LEADERSHIP & BUSINESS COACH

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CANCER SURVIVOR

I’m here to help purpose-driven lawyers and other professionals (like you) build your ideal career to support the life you actually want. Because you shouldn’t have to choose between professional success & personal happiness.

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