By Ashley Stead-Morine
Fellow YACCtivist Shana Coulliard recently blogged about her experience at the “Writing Through Cancer” workshops during our training weekend. The workshop unexpectedly allowed me to dig deep into the endless thoughts I had about my experience with cancer, down to the pieces that had not yet found a home in the puzzle of healing.
On a sunny August morning in Toronto, 15 cancer thrivers filled a cozy room at Gilda’s Club and were asked to write whatever came to mind when we heard the word “fear.”
Without thinking, my hand scrawled the following:
“Before treatment — Fear of dying. After treatment — fear of not truly living.”
This was my BINGO! moment. I had tried to explain this thought to my husband, friends, and family after numerous comments such as, “You’ve changed since cancer, Ashley,” and “You’ve become selfish since cancer, Ashley.”
When I heard the words “you have cancer,” thoughts of my own mortality were ceaseless. The mission ahead was to get through treatment and hope the cancer was killed and wouldn’t recur. After that, I would go back to living.
At the time, I believed living meant I would continue with the life I had created for myself pre-cancer. This life was comfortable and I often dreamt about it during treatment. The 9 to 5 job at the dental clinic, saving for a new car and a new house, paying off debt, and staying warm in my home in the arctic (where I was a known homebody).
Ocular melanoma metastasizes, claiming the lives of 50 per cent of those who are diagnosed within five years. On March 8, 2017, I sat anxiously in my oncologist’s waiting room, knowing I could be told that I was going to be part of that statistic. After a grueling two-hour wait, I was told my chances of recurrence are two per cent. To a cancer patient, two per cent feels like zero per cent. Those are some damn good statistics.
March 8, 2017 is when I realized I didn’t want to live the life I had been living pre-cancer. It hit me like a slap in the face.
I believe that only cancer patients — or those with chronic illness — will understand this shift in my mentality. Many friends and family members told me they didn’t see anything wrong with the life I had lived for 27 years, and they’re right. It was a good life. I had a loving husband, two cuddly pups, financial security, a warm home, and food on the table, but I truly felt that I hadn’t been living my best life. (I’m such a fucking millennial.)
Cancer taught me this:
- Saving money for the future is still a smart idea (Thanks, Dad), but understand the future could be taken away from you at any moment. Buy the shoes, eat the fancy cheese, drink the fancy wine, and TRAVEL. This year alone, I’ve bought shoes, ate cheese, and drank wine in six different countries.
- Do things that scare you. Nothing in this world is as scary as cancer. In my case, that meant travelling solo, driving a skidoo through remote arctic tundra, and suiting up at the local volunteer fire department.
- Follow your heart. Is the career you’ve been working in the past eight years fulfilling you? If not, why not apply for the dream job you’ve literally none of the qualifications for? See where it takes you. My new career has taken me to the most remote islands in the Arctic archipelago.
- Surround yourself with people who make you a better person. Don’t take them for granted.
I used to care what people thought, a lot, which is why I was introverted pre-cancer. Now, I’m a cancer awareness advocate, plan many social events in my community, and have an amazing circle of friends who support me in all my crazy, post-cancer adventures. Some friends even attend oncology appointments with me, which include needles to the eyeball. Those friends are the real MVPs.
- Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. The white picket fence, the new car, the babies. These are all great things I hope to have some day, but for now I’m happy with my rental unit, 10-year-old Ford Explorer, and my puppies. I’m content. Pre-cancer Ashley couldn’t sleep at night knowing I hadn’t attained these goals yet. How silly.
Judy Rohm, a breast cancer survivor summarizes my thoughts nicely, in her poem, “A Lesson.”
At a breast cancer rally she rises
Above sixteen positive lymph nodes
To tell the world that cancer is a wakeup call
That resonates to the cell level.
It’s a lesson taught by trembling hands
That squeeze from today a second cup of coffee
On a sunny deck with someone you love.
It is a slap that sends you flying from Michigan
To Cozumel because cancer teaches that snorkeling
Coral reefs pays greater dividends than a savings account
And mowing summer grass can be postponed
For bike rides past wild flowers and country streams,
And vacuuming the carpet and washing the windows
Are low priority items when a friend drops by to visit.
Cancer is not a gift but a lesson
Full of loving now and living presently
I’m not going to say that cancer was a gift, or that I’m lucky to have been diagnosed — Hell no. But the lesson that cancer taught me was a gift.
We have one life; live it.
Snuggles and tea with my sister 3 days into brachytherapy radiation.
I went from cleaning teeth every day to making beluga whale salad with the Inuvialuit people in remote Sachs Harbour.
On my one year cancer-versary I enjoyed Christmas (and many cups of gluhwein) in Germany.
Feeding Kangaroos in Brisbane, Australia.
Spice World concert in Bristol UK