The Only Way out is Through

by Jen DonovanSurvivor, Breast CancerMay 18, 2022View more posts from Jen Donovan

I was 20 years old and in college when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. I remember watching an interview in the months following in which a survivor from one of the twin towers talked openly about how guilty she felt for surviving.

And I didn’t understand.

I asked out loud to an empty room, “You feel bad because you’re still alive? I don’t get it.”

Fast forward 18 years, and I began to understand.

In October of 2019, one month before my 39th birthday and smack dab in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I guess you could say I had been made fully aware.

I caught it early but never found a lump. Some changes in my skin led me to make an appointment, and I’m so grateful that I did. It was stage 1, slow-moving, and non-aggressive. Short of not having it at all, I was told I had the best possible scenario.

I ached for something better.

I endured a lumpectomy and 30 rounds of radiation before receiving the “all clear”.

It’s true what survivors say about the end of treatment being one of the hardest times. Everyone around you moves on while you are left feeling vulnerable and alone.

No one is regularly checking on you, and there is no more active fight. The strategists have all gone home, and you are left to pick up the pieces of your life.

I finished treatment in March 2020, two days before New York State shut down from the pandemic, so I was attempting to rebuild against a backdrop the world had never seen before.

And slowly, in the months following my “all clear,” news of other cancer deaths and serious cancer diagnoses started cropping up.

Some were close to me, and some were not. They were male, female, work acquaintances, or friends. But there was one common thread.

I felt that each one of them had so much more to live for than I did.

Some were younger than me. Some had spouses and children. They led such full and deliberate lives that I deemed them too important to not be spared.

I am single and live alone. I recently adopted a cat. I don’t feel ambitious—some days I don’t feel anything at all. There are days I’m not overly productive. Days I watch too much television or don’t have one decent sentiment to share with anyone.

What’s so special about me that I still get to be here, but they don’t?

There’s a new weight to decisions now, almost like I’m supposed to live every moment on purpose—as if that somehow honors those who lost their battles with cancer.

Some days I want to hide.

But there is a truth I’ve discovered over the last couple years that has helped me handle the guilt: you may not live what some consider a “big” life, but it matters just the same.

I found that as I started writing and sharing about my cancer journey, others around me gained the courage to share their own stories. They would tell me that something I wrote encouraged them or gave them the strength they needed at just the right time. I’ve even received feedback from some ladies who never experienced cancer but walked through other dark times, and they have shared that something I wrote brought them hope.

I also gained a new-found empathy for grief of any kind. I now know how empty the cliches are and how valuable it is to offer myself, instead of platitudes. It is invaluable to sit with someone in their pain and commit to walking alongside them through it all.

I realized that I am helping people in a way I had never been able to before.

There is no “easy” cancer.

I may have “only” experienced a stage 1 diagnosis, but it was still cancer. I remember one person said to me, “Stage 1? That’s nothing.”

But it is something. It’s something to me. It matters to me. Each instance of cancer is as unique as a fingerprint and each diagnosis brings with it struggles that can ripple through your life, especially if you are diagnosed under 40.

I can honestly say that two and a half years later, I am still processing and still grieving in some ways. And that’s okay. My diagnosis didn’t need to be any worse to still have a life-altering impact.

My life and my cancer journey might look different from those around me, but it has value because of that, not in spite of it.

Feelings of guilt will continue to pop up from time to time—this is part of grief, and part of the healing road I’m on.

I know it won’t happen overnight. I need to be gentle with myself. There’s a reason it’s called a cancer “journey”.

The only way out is through.

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