This weekend I got a call from a good friend of mine who asked if I regretted quitting my job and starting a business. She’s thinking of doing the same. I’ve talked to several friends of mine over the years who have considered this, as well, and I’ve realized something: having cancer was a blessing.

A life-threatening illness, major surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and a need for a long recovery time helped me become more courageous and authentic to who I really am. Snippets of memories spring forth. Interestingly, most of them have to do with looking different – and how getting out of my comfort zone opened up an entirely new world.

Cancer forced me to stand out. About a month before I lost my hair, I decided that I wouldn’t wear a wig.  For some reason, it felt like I would be pretending I had hair when I didn’t, and it felt very important to be honest with myself.  I went to work wearing maxi dresses and head scarves, like a white Erykah Badu. Internally, I was shaking. I didn’t look like “me” and I certainly didn’t look like anyone else in an office full of Fortune 500 executives. But I got compliments on my sense of style. One woman later found out I had been going through chemotherapy and specifically came up to me to say she just thought I was rocking a new look. I found it amazing that people thought I had that much courage to stand out in a crowd. I was just trying to stay true to myself.

I got comfortable being different. After gaining 15 pounds due to steroids and chemo-lowered metabolism, losing my eyebrows, eyelashes, hair and breaking out in a rash on my face, I didn’t really see the external me of “me.” I’d get glimpses if I looked in to my eyes, but I remember shopping in a store with a wall of mirrors and seeing someone in the reflection. I didn’t realize it was me. After two summer months of wearing hot scarves on my head, I was done caring.  Just three weeks after I finished chemo, my skin started to look better and I saw the beginning of hair growing on my head.  I ditched the scarves. I went to work with my scalp looking like I had a 5-o’clock shadow.  People told me they were envious that I had that much courage. In fact, someone on the street chased after me to tell me they loved my haircut, and a new mom fantasized over wanting the same hassle-free style.  I found it amazing that people thought I would make choices that were so extreme. I was just trying to be comfortable in my own skin.

I lived – to live. Throughout my entire life, I knew what I was ‘supposed to do’: get good grades, go to college, climb the corporate ladder, etc.  With an unexpected diagnosis came an un-nerving and un-precedented amount of freedom.  There is no manual written by Emily Post that arrives along with the words “you have cancer.” Suddenly I was living in a world without a structured set of rules. For about three days, I walked around feeling stunned, wondering how I would be capable of going through what I was facing. Then I found my voice.  Strangely, the day I found it, I was getting a medical test which involved placing a needle in my vein. I hate needles. The nurse had actually stuck me and was inserting the catheter when I just lost it. I saw that thing, and stood up and ran away. Literally. I ran around the room. She looked at me in shock and said “But we’ve already done the worst part! We just put the catheter around it now.” I let go of my hysteria long enough to get the test. But as soon as it was over, I started sobbing. How in the world could I handle chemotherapy if I couldn’t get past my phobia of needles? I walked out into the waiting area of the lab and my friend hugged me. Suddenly, my attention was caught by a news story: A plane had landed in the Hudson River. And I knew in that moment – people are capable of unimaginable things. And all I needed to do was to live that way.  I went through surgery, chemo and radiation – but I did it in my own way. That meant flying around the world to see friends and family, and spending quality time with those I loved. One of those times meant witnessing my cousin’s wedding in Serbia.  I was completely exhausted, but it’s a memory I wouldn’t trade for the world. People told me I was inspiring them because I loved life so much and had the courage to live it. I found it amazing that people thought I was inspiring. I was just trying to remind myself what I was living for.

By the end of the year, I had heard:

1. You have the courage to stand out in a crowd.

2. You make choices that are outside of the norm.

3. You live life on your own terms.

These statements struck me as odd.  Yet over time, I realized that’s who I was. And I had probably wanted to be that version of me throughout my entire life.  Breaking through old beliefs caused me to go forward on my own path – one that’s different than the path I was on before, and different than the path I would have framed as “expected.”  Yet, as I made the choices to change my life, I kept hearing from my friends and family “Oh.. that’s just so totally YOU.”

One of my favorite songs is “Non je ne regrette rien” (I regret nothing), popularly recorded by Edith Piaf.  The song includes the lyrics “Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal tout ca m’est bien egal.” These words, loosely translated as ‘neither the good that happened to me, nor the bad – to me it’s all equal’, are a summary of a life view that leads to no regrets.

When we can look at an event in life, whether we label it “good” or “bad”, as just a part of a bigger story, it makes room for the unexpected and unorthodox.  It takes faith – faith in yourself, faith in a Higher Power, faith in the goodness of the Universe. This belief, described in Romans 8:28: “all things work together for good for those who love God” has the power you need to live a life of no regrets.

For those of you who are reflecting whether to forge your own path, I encourage you. Be authentic to yourself. Be courageous. Believe.

Live your life.

And don’t forget – it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Be sure to look for lumps! 

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