Stage 4 Tonsil Cancer, 2-year survivor
Writer, PR & Marketing
My husband died suddenly in 2011. I found myself, after 15 years of being at home with my children, parenting alone, with a part-time job that would never support our lifestyle. There was nowhere for all the crazy, and all the fear, to go but down on paper. As a writer, it was my only outlet. My blog, The Duchess Diaries, evolved from the crazy. It grew and pretty soon, there were readers from all over the world.
It was not a money-maker but that was okay. I was accomplishing something on my own. My friends and I joked that I was living my life backwards. My fifties would be my twenties. I worked in PR for nonprofits–fundraising, speaking and handling media.
Two years later, getting closer to putting my life back together, I’m diagnosed with tonsil cancer. Who the hell ever heard of tonsil cancer? It’s a cancer that strikes men over 65, smokers, heavy drinkers, and those who chew tobacco. Not very Duchess like.
Three surgeries, chemo and radiation, are the answer to the question I never asked. I vow to be that woman who never misses work, who trudges through with grace and becomes a beacon for all, right? Isn’t that what we all say? Those who claim to never miss work, barely get sick and just sail through? They lie.
The darkest time for me, though, isn’t during treatment. I throw up, lose weight, pray in the radiation tube, and crawl to the bathroom in the middle of the night with the best of them. For me, it’s after treatment. I felt worse.
I never felt sick or bothered before diagnosis. I went to the doctor because I had a lump on my neck. It never hurt. It wasn’t sore. It just suddenly grew. Pain during chemo and radiation was a constant, but I almost felt, “ready.” I had prepared in my mind for it to be so excruciating that the bad wasn’t, “as bad.” I marked off the 36 radiation treatments each and every day and convinced myself it would be better on day 37.
I was blindsided by how bad it got—afterward. I was ill prepared for how terrible I felt, how useless, how tired, how beaten I became. Wrestling with my mental demons was by far the worst. My self-esteem attacked every fiber in me. I was no longer worthy of a good life, a good job, success, financial stability and happiness. I most certainly was not a warrior and sometimes contemplated whether being here was worth it.
My strength did not return for almost a year-and-a-half. I convinced myself it was not coming and this was my life. Surgery and radiation had taken my ability to speak and eat, and chemo stole some of my hearing. I was a walking, slurring mess. I had a feeding tube for over a year and still have a speech therapist. As someone who talks for a living, this was a great blow.
One day I had enough. I had enough of the world controlling me, which was really me giving it control. Every job interview was met with no’s and quizzical looks at my speech. Writing had always been my strength and passion—and for that I didn’t need speech. I vowed to work on my speech but do whatever it took to move forward.
I took a job in a spa—doing the most menial of tasks—cleaning up after ladies in the locker room. The job forced me to talk. It forced me to physically move. And, frankly, it was the only job I could get at that time. It also humbled me. Since it took little thought to do the job, I had plenty of time to plot my new life.
I started looking for clients that needed my services. I had been in PR and Marketing. I may not be able to get a company to hire me but I knew a lot of people. I tapped everyone for work. I acted as if everything was great. In eight months, I went from zero clients to ten, financial stability and more work than I can handle. I am thrilled to be “too busy.”
It was when my daughter said, “Mom, you built this business in eight months,” that it dawned on me I created my 2nd Act. Cancer robbed me of what I thought I should be doing and forced me to do what I love, am in control of and do well on my own terms. I never had that moxie before.
Cancer changed me in that it taught me not to care. I don’t care what others think. Those that judge weren’t there when my life was in shambles. Cancer taught me only I can fix it. When all those jobs turned me down, only I could fix it. Because I had to; just like I had to go in that damn radiation tube every day. Cancer teaches us resilience. It teaches us compassion and it teaches to look at what’s important. It’s not what we think.
My brightest moments are ahead of me. There is no way all this happened for this not to turn out great. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
I would tell my pre-cancer self that it’s just another journey. It’s a sucky one but it houses lessons. Don’t let it control your thoughts. Ask for help. Brave is bullshit. Put on lipstick and great shoes—some days it will be the only thing that gets you through.
My 2nd Act is a life I control. I work with clients I choose. I write what I want. I expand in the way that feels comfortable to me. The blog is about to be serialized in a magazine. For some things, I have cancer to thank.
One thing always remains the same and that’s my favorite quote:
“Joy is the greatest measure of success.”