Receiving the devastating news of a cancer diagnosis is the stuff of nightmares. It's what hundreds of books and movies portray as "the end" for someone, and it's what drives the emotions of the story with the circumstances. We rarely hear about those who beat a stage IV diagnosis and are thriving as healthy, whole individuals on the other side of it.
Well, this happens to be my story. In September 2015, I went from being a typically normal, healthy, non-smoking, 20-something female to being a cancer patient. It all happened so fast. One day, I had a sore on the side of my tongue that dentists kept telling me wasn't anything to worry about.
The next thing I knew, I was having intensive surgery to remove and reconstruct half of my tongue due to an aggressive tumor that was growing into it. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, so the doctors officially labeled my diagnosis as stage IV oral squamous cell carcinoma.
It was traumatic, more pain than I have ever gone through and incredibly difficult to deal with. Singing has always been a huge part of who I am, and I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that I would have to re-learn to chew and swallow again. Most of all, I learned how to speak again. Cancer is a physical, emotional and spiritual journey.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and here are five things I've learned throughout this process as a 20-something cancer survivor:
1. Cancer is not a death sentence.
My initial reaction to my diagnosis was shock and depression. "Cancer? What about everything I still want to do with my life? I've barely lived yet!"
We have seen what cancer and its subsequent treatments do to people. Chemo and radiation ravages the body, kills off the bad cells along with the good and leaves us defenseless, making it so much harder to recover and get better.
A few weeks after my surgery, the treatment plan called for intensive radiation to follow up and kill off any stray cancer cells. But, I decided against it. I did not want to live the rest of my life with burned neck muscles, damaged salivary glands and no taste buds (along with the fact that radiation is known to cause secondary cancers).
So instead, against the doctors' recommendations, I chose to pursue natural routes for healing. I made a total change in my nutrition, and I used supplements, essential oils and mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy. I'm writing this a little over six months later completely cancer-free.
Cancer does not have to be a death sentence. It's what we are conditioned to believe, but it's not true. Do your research, and make informed choices. Regardless of how you decide to treat your cancer, it's ultimately your decision.
2. My health is my responsibility.
No one is guaranteed tomorrow. How we choose to spend each day and the consequences (both good and bad) of our choices are our own responsibilities. No one else can choose what I eat, how I spend my time and how often I exercise and take care of myself.
The same has been true with how I've chosen to treat my cancer and help my body recover through this process. I am my own best advocate. Cancer taught me to really pay attention to the warning signs in my body. I'm now aware of how I was treating myself before all of this happened, and I've changed to adapt to a healthy lifestyle. I stopped leaving my health as a constant afterthought.
3. Emotional detoxes are just as important as physical detoxes.
As a young person, having cancer really gives you a different perspective on life. Ditch the drama. It's honestly the best thing you can do for yourself. If it's coming from social media, detox from your accounts for a while.
Delete apps off your phone. Create some serious boundaries in your relationships, especially those that aren't uplifting or encouraging. If it's coming from your job, make a conscious effort to change your environment, internally or externally.
Choose life-giving activities and hobbies. Find time for intentional rest. Create joy in your everyday life. Embrace the beauty in the small things, and don't be afraid to take risks and make memories. Your emotional health goes hand in hand with your physical health.
4. Community is key.
Surrounding myself with supportive, like-minded people was the best thing I could have done for myself through this journey. I am now part of organizations that support young adult cancer patients and survivors. I've connected with others through Facebook, Instagram and blogs. I now really feel like I'm part of something so much bigger than myself.
It has been so important to work with an amazing counselor who helped me process through the difficulties. It's tempting to hide from the world when you're dealing with something like cancer, but allowing myself to heal through relationships has been vital.
Bonding with others who have also walked through this journey was encouraging and motivating. Beautiful friendships have blossomed because of it. But, I have also sadly discovered who was really there for me and who wasn't. I am standing on the other side of this with a very different set of relationships from before all of this happened, and it's perfectly OK.
5. Helping others is a blessing.
I don't know why I had to walk through the hell of oral cancer, but being a cancer survivor will now always be a part of my life story. I wake up every morning with the awareness in the back of my mind. But, I have gone through all of this for a reason. Being able to share my story with others and encourage, stand with and love on young people who are at the beginning of their cancer journeys as well is the blessing in disguise.
The work I do now as a writer and health coach (of sorts) would have never come about if I hadn't been through this journey. I feel like I've been given a second chance to make a fresh start and pursue my passions wholeheartedly.
But I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what I've been through will help give hope to someone else, even if I never meet that person. My story is bigger than me.