By Heather Bonynge
I was diagnosed with cervical cancer on December 19, 2008. I was 27 years old, and my daughter was four and half months old. I underwent six months of treatment involving two abdominal surgeries, 25 rounds of radiation therapy, and five rounds of chemotherapy. A large part of my treatment was spent focusing on the end of treatment, and where was I going to be when it was all over.
Once I reached my destination, I quickly realized this was not the end; survivorship was proving to be a much longer, and much more difficult journey. Again, all I could think about was the finish line and how I was going to get there.
Having cancer shook up my entire world. My ideals, my goals, the way I lived my life before my diagnosis — none of it was the same anymore, but I expected it to get there again. Even more than before I had cancer, it seemed imperative that I figure my life out. What did I want out of life? What was my purpose? I needed to get there, and I needed to get there quickly.
Being faced with the end of your life right in the middle of it makes you think a lot about how limited your time is. Even though the line was blurry, I was in a race to the finish; my destination was my only focus. The rest of my life, as it was happening around me, became fuzzy and out of focus. I had forgotten how to stop and take in the moments as they happened and appreciate things and my life for where they were right now, and not so much where they could be in the future.
For me, this approach was neither helpful nor healthy. I was driving myself crazy, and making myself miserable by never allowing myself to be present in the joy that surrounded me. I started to feel hopeless, and like I would never rediscover my path or direction. I was bitter and angry, and I blamed cancer for what it had taken from me. I knew I had to make a change, but that I could not do it alone. This is when I found Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC).
My engagement with the YACC community, has allowed me to share my story, open up about my experience with cancer, rediscover my passions, and get a little crazy sometimes. I have been allowed to do this within a community that is completely non-judgmental and accepting, and as a result of that unconditional support, I have relaxed a little and stopped worrying so much about the destination and paid more attention to the journey I am on in order to get there.
Last year at this time, I participated in YACC’s Retreat Yourself Adventure. Our group took on the incredible task of climbing Gros Morne Mountain. It was a seven-and-half-hour undertaking, and I am confident in saying that all of us were anticipating the finish line throughout the climb, especially during the five-and-half-hour trek down the back of the mountain. During the hike, however, it often proved to be more important for us to be mindful of where our feet were planted as we manoeuvred ourselves over rocky terrain, and less important on where they needed to get to in the end. During closing circle that night, all of us talked about how the mountain had become a large metaphor for much of our experience with cancer and even with life in general. For me, climbing Gros Morne opened me up to the next stage of my journey. While I knew I was still moving forward, I was less focused on where I needed to end up, and more attentive of where I was right now.
In the year since going up that mountain, I have on many occasions experienced these “in the moment” flashes when I can just stop to love and appreciate things as they are happening. My most recent experience with this was on September 27, 2015 as I participated in Saskatoon edition of the Climb. We were on the back leg of our 5km walk, and I was in the middle of the pack of 28 participants sharing their stories, connecting with one another, re-energizing their spirit, and building a community. I stopped, looked ahead of myself, then turned and looked behind. There it was. The moment. The realization. The joyfulness.
As the host and organizer of the Climb in Saskatoon, a brief part of the moment was spent appreciating and recognizing what I had done to help make this event happen. Honestly though, it was less about me, and more about suddenly realizing exactly what I was part of! Community, support, love, and acceptance.
At the beginning of our walk, we all took two rocks. The first rock represented what we were carrying with us that was holding us back from moving forward in our journey. We were all instructed along our walk to take a moment when we were ready, and to throw that rock away. The second rock was for all for the people or things we have in our life that help carry us through the difficult times; that rock we were told to keep, and to allow it to continue to be part of our foundation.
My second rock was held tight in my hand throughout the Climb, but in this moment, as I recognized the pure AWESOMENESS that was happening all around me, I squeezed it a little tighter. I knew that at any point if I were to let that rock go, it wouldn’t matter. I now have the strength, spirit, and support of a community that has and will carry me through any type of terrain I encounter as I continue along my path. I’ll worry less about my destination, and more about the people and the moments I share along the way.