February is an important month. On February 24th, 2012 at the age of 42, I was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer. I won’t go into all the details of how I came to that point, but I will stress the importance of monthly self exams, following instinct, and being your own advocate during medical appointments.
I admit the first month after my diagnosis was the toughest on me mentally. As in I-never-want-to-go-through-that-ever-ever-again tough. Once further scans confirmed the cancer had not spread beyond my breast and lymph nodes, however, something switched inside me. My oncologist and I had a plan (rounds of intensive chemo, further testing, and of course major surgeries). I am good with a plan. Once I had that, I was ready.
Ready to fight. Ready to move forward. Ready to smile. Ready to laugh.
When facing a major challenge, whether it be health, relationship, financial, or personal loss, the power of laughter can change everything. No, it cannot erase the struggle itself, but it does possess some amazing healing magic.
The outlook. The plan of attack. The outcome. With a good sense of humor, coping becomes easier.
Dealing with the treatment, pain, and fear was not easy. It never is. But aside from the hurt I remember this: the ridiculousness of everything around me. The time and energy I wasted on stuff that did not matter became glaringly obvious. Television sitcoms were funnier when I was sick. Social media jokes made me laugh out loud – literally. Friends and family were vital during this time because they tried so hard to help, even when they felt helpless. Funny greeting cards arrived in the mail. Silly quotes and memes appeared in my newsfeed. Most days after chemo were unbearable to wade through but on the one week per month when I felt well enough to get dressed and out of the house, my friends would take me to a stupid movie. I had no hair, incisions that refused to heal, poison running through every ounce of my body, but we laughed. Together.
I was honest about my journey (probably too honest for some) but it was important for me to pull back the layers so those close to me could better understand. The fear. The pain. The fight. The ridiculousness of our worries. The reason I made jokes. I wanted them to know.
This was serious, heady, life-or-death stuff, and they showed their love and support by following my lead. They made jokes. Stupid, stupid, oh so stupid jokes.
I knew I was facing this nightmare the correct way when I bid farewell to my oncologist. My family was moving out of state, and I was sad to leave my doctor. He and I were an odd pair. Him a young Nigerian who often did not get my sarcasm-laced comments. Me an almost-middle-age woman who faces life with an at-times unfair pragmatism. He was intelligent, confident, focused, and totally immersed in the medical side of my case. I was curious, scared, foggy, and unwilling to settle for status quo on information or treatment.
When we said goodbye, he looked me in the eye and admitted his worries about me in the beginning. My depressed outlook and sadness were pervasive, leaving him to become concerned about treating me and my ability to fight. But once I got past that, he became amazed. Amazed at my determination, my strength, my desire to do whatever necessary and never complain. He liked how I made jokes about the things most people fear. He appreciated the way I not only listened but heard him. I would be remembered as one of his favorite patients, he told me.
I was honored and emotional. Of course, I cried a bit. Thanks to cancer, everything makes me cry. And when I went to hug him and whisper a simple thank you, he seemed shocked. Believing I crossed a line, I immediately apologized. He brushed it off with a shy smile. No one has ever done that before, he told me. Countless had given heartfelt thanks but no one had hugged him? You should do it more often. Patient’s orders, I joked.
And with that, our final moment and memory together was filled with laughter.
Cancer itself is not funny, and it does not always end happily. My year of fighting and the battle scars sketched in my mind and on my body are permanent reminders of its brutality. I do not know if it will ever return. It might. It might not. The fear follows me – every moment, every day – but I do not allow it to linger. The only thing I can be sure of is the magic of positivity. The healing power of simple joy.
Even if the situation is not the one we want, it does no good to become lost and absorbed in negative thought or anger. Yes, these are normal reactions to dealing with a challenge but please do not stay there. Life is finite. We only have this moment.
When the opportunity comes to choose joy, take it.
Today, I am in full remission. July 2017 marks 5 years cancer-free for this girl. Every anniversary has been met with celebration but this one is big. Very big. But that is months away. I do not have time to dwell on something that has not happened yet. I have some laughing and loving and living to do – today.