Every story - like cancer itself - is unique. This blog is part of our ongoing 2017 Survivor Week. Join us from May 29-June 4 as we unpack the complexity of what it means to be a cancer survivor, from those who reject the word entirely to individuals who have embraced their diagnosis with a new sense of purpose. What does being a survivor mean to you?
This post was written by Vanessa Ghigliotty, a stage IV survivor at age 28.
As I sit here getting ready to celebrate National Cancer Survivor Week, I can’t help but look back and see flashes, fifteen years’ worth, of scary, frightening, devastating, uplifting, powerful, exciting, and emotional memories that have made me who I am today: a cancer survivor.
Don’t get me wrong, I wear many other hats.
I am a mom, daughter, sister, aunt, Godmother, advocate, volunteer, the list goes on and on. But what I am most, what has defined the second half of my life thus far, is being a cancer survivor.
That’s such a strong statement, so much so, it makes me wonder what exactly does being a survivor mean to me?
The realization of what being a survivor means to me happened in three parts. Three big moments and all of them in a hospital room.
To better understand where I am coming from, know that my body was apparently very sensitive. I never handled chemo well at all and had almost every complication that you can get from treatment and surgeries. Because of this, it seemed like I was always in the hospital. This earned me the nickname, the One in a million girl
Before cancer, I was only 28 years old and I was bitter, angry, disappointed and disillusioned with the world. I hated myself and my life. I hated myself so much that I did not have one single picture of me. Not one. This Selfie Queen
literally hid and avoided all pictures.
As I laid there after my first surgery and was told to get my affairs in order ASAP, I thought, my son will have no pictures of me when I die
This started an avalanche of thoughts.
I laid there looking over my whole life with brutal honesty for hours. Choking on the sadness I felt for my life and the time I wasted on being so negative and on hating myself. The regret of my attitude. My attitude
. I made promises to myself that day and my attitude was the biggest one.
The next moment was during one of my many hospital stays, I remember so vividly, turning to my fiancé. He was sitting in the chair watching TV. I laid there looking at him, quietly crying. I had this incredibly strong feeling that I had to share. I had to reassure myself that what I was feeling wasn’t crazy or some delusion because I was so physically, emotionally and spiritually drained from my challenging fight with cancer. I reached out, grabbed his hand and told him, “I am going through all of this for a reason. I am gonna give back. I mean, this isn’t normal to get every complication that is supposedly rare. This is happening because I need to know all of this so when I give back, I am gonna understand so many who are still in the fight right? I AM GONNA LIVE!”
I knew at that moment, as I lay crying and seeking reassurance from my fiancé, I was going beat the cancer in my body. I knew with complete certainty my life was no longer my own. I was going through so many difficulties because I was going to give back. I needed to be able to connect with others in the fight and I needed to fight for those of us who are ignored because of our age. My attitude was again evolving.
The last realization came when I woke up from just having open heart surgery for yet another complication caused by my battle with cancer. The part of the chemotherapy port that goes into your heart developed a huge clot that they thought was initially a tumor. That was how my chemotherapy treatments stopped.
There I was in the hospital, yet again, with so many tubes and wires coming out of me and all these machines next to my hospital bed. Was I a human or a robot?
I look up to see my mother and my son on chairs looking so very sad. I remember banging on the hospital bed to get their attention, then when they looked over, I grabbed my knee and started shaking my head making funny noises. (My dad had just had knee replacement surgery and I guess the way we dealt with the stress of my dad, the head of my family, being in so much pain was to be silly about it. We all laughed when he did it, including himself.) I was proud of myself for being able to make light of such a serious situation and putting aside the incredible physical pain I felt along with the absolute fright of having woken up to feeling like a robot connected to so many other machines, in order make my mom and my son laugh.
Again, my attitude evolved. I really liked me at that moment, I didn’t truly love myself yet, that realization came later. I was so proud of the way I handled my whole battle with cancer, and most especially that moment. I knew I was strong and could handle the bumpy road of life, however long or short that may be.
Through these three prophetic moments in my life, each in a hospital bed, I learned that being a survivor is all about attitude. To me attitude is survivorship, it goes hand in hand. My attitude is literally what makes me a survivor. It’s being positive, choosing to smile and give hugs, taking so many pictures and getting busy living your best life.
Yes, I know I can be annoyingly positive, but I will never go back to that negative attitude I had.
It was that constant dark cloud and heavy suffocating cloak I wore daily that brought me down. It kept me from all the love and beauty inside of me and in my world. Let’s keep it real here, I am human, I have days when that cloak comes back on, but I don’t keep it on.
The survivor in me, my attitude, is to feel what your feeling, acknowledge it, work through it and then move on. After all, I have no time to waste on a negative attitude when there are so many selfies to take!
Vanessa is a passionate stage IV survivor and longtime volunteer and buddy for Colon Cancer Alliance. Also known as Queen V, Vanessa is a tireless advocate for increased screening, education and prevention, especially for the early-age onset population and has done this through her many outreach, patient support and advocacy with different cancer organizations.