It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as a survivor, I wouldn't go so far as to say I want to celebrate having had breast cancer, but it has made a positive difference in my life. One I am not so sure I would have achieved on my own, without the decisive prod of facing my own mortality.
I am a slow learner too, because I have had breast cancer not once, but twice. The first time I was just 39, married with two young children and my biggest fear at the time was that I was not going to see them grow up. I even bought the book Motherless Daughters so I could help prepare them, and myself for what it might be like.
You may be thinking that I was taking a negative outlook, far from it, I was trying to be realistic. In fact, having a positive attitude is key because your approach and actions can govern your outcome. I say "can" because despite the best of attitudes, some people don't make it.
At the time my main goal was just physically getting through the treatments -- radiation and chemo. Friends and family were wonderful, sweeping in to take care of the girls or preparing meals for chemo days. I was amazed at the generosity and kindness of people who started out as acquaintances and became true friends.
Yet others disappeared and I decided to make it their problem, not mine. Clearly they had issues and were not that comfortable being around someone who might die on them.
After the treatments were over, the emotional challenges began, as much of my energy initially had been on staying as well as I could during the toxic attack on my body. With every ache and pain, I was worried that the cancer was back.
It didn't help that I got shingles, a common outcome of the chemotherapy and a lowered resistance. Now the shingles kept me away from work, whereas I had chosen to keep working through the treatments. Maintaining a normal routine helped me to cope, as I felt staying home would have encouraged me to hold a "pity party" and I refused to go there.
Denial is a strong coping strategy and one that I relied on throughout that first round of cancer. I was determined the disease was not going to get me, nor was my life going to be changed.
But of course it was. When I was offered an exciting new position of managing editor at a national magazine I leapt at it, acting as if I could handle the steep learning curve, long hours and the demanding deadlines while still balancing the needs of my young family. Who was I kidding? Well not myself for long. It wasn't doable, nor was it fair to my family who had been through a lot.
As I paused to reflect on how I wanted to spend my time, I realized it was important for me to make a difference and I set off to run a non-profit organization that supported women.
Fast-forward 15 years, and the cancer was back. And it was a shock. I had forgotten that once you are a member of the exclusive "C Club," your membership never really expires and my dues were called. By this time, I was operating my own successful consulting business and running Company of Women on the side.
This time I selected to have a double mastectomy -- enough is enough and as I said to a friend at the time -- I wanted a level playing field. This second brush with cancer really made me look at what I wanted to do, and I chose to close my business and focus my energies on building Company of Women so I could support more women in business.
I have learned several lessons through this experience that I'd like to share because as I intimated at the beginning, it is not all bad and in business terminology, there are features and benefits. The features are the treatment options but the benefits are:
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1. You focus on what is important to you. None of us know how long we have on this planet, make sure the time you have is meaningful.
2. You take more risks. If you have something on your bucket list that you have been longing to do -- do it. Don't put off something because tomorrow may never come.
3. You surround yourself with positive people. Forget about those "friends" who always drag you down. You don't need them.
4. You tell people how you feel. One thing I learned during my cancer journey is how much people love me. In return, share your feelings. Say thank you.
5. You get active. I was pretty much a couch potato when this all started. I have since taken charge of my health and my body and workout regularly and feel so much better as a result.
6. You don't sweat the small stuff. I gained a sense of perspective and when I weighed up what was happening in my life, and asked what is the worst thing that can happen -- it is usually not that bad. Really, trust me.
Four years ago one of my daughters got married. It was such a wonderful day of celebration and I was so happy that I was alive to witness and be part of this special moment in her life. I treasure all these moments and celebrate life to the fullest.