Picture this. It’s October and we’re in Cubs playoff season. I’m standing in Murphy’s bleachers post-win. Adrenaline is running high and everyone is having the time of their lives. I look in despair at my friend's brother-in-law and tell him my deep dark secret that I had been carrying.
I have cancer.
His response to me: “cancer is the best thing that is ever going to happen to you.” Uhhh, what? Best thing… said no one ever. But it’s the truest statement I’ve ever heard (and for the record he’s an oncologist).
When we go through hard times, it’s all about picking up the pieces and moving on. It’s about taking care of you and loving yourself unconditionally. It’s about letting go of what you think could happen and never stopping that forward motion. It’s about learning what really is important in life and what actually makes you happy. This is part of my very own survivor story.
Let me introduce myself. I’m Jacqueline. A 39 year old Art Director and Fitness Instructor. I lead a healthy and very happy lifestyle with workouts a plenty and clean eating (don’t judge me on an occasional burger or donut; cuz...life). So how did I end up with cancer? Yeah, the big C word.
It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around it. Back in August of 2016, I was having some stomach pain and was soon diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma. That diagnosis later turned into a double hit large B Cell lymphoma and my life was immediately turned upside down. I got the call from my oncologist on a Friday. I was at happy hour enjoying a well deserved after-work cocktail when I found out that 3 days later I would be entering Northwestern Hospital for the start of an aggressive chemotherapy treatment. If you know me, then you know I’m kind of an alpha female. I can’t help it. However, being the pioneer of cancer was not something I wanted to be the first of my friends to accomplish. I'm also the first in my family to get cancer. Mine was environmental not hereditary. Yay, me.
Long story short (you can read more on my website here), I went through 6 months of aggressive 5 day, 24 hour chemo drip hospital stays every 2 weeks. I am officially in remission but it was a true test. My patience was the first to be tested. I apparently don’t have a lot of it. I don’t like to slow down and I definitely don’t like having people tell me what I can and can not do. I taught classes and worked out all through chemo. I did as much as I was capable of. Workouts are my therapy sessions. I slowed down when I needed to and listened to my body. But patience truly is a virtue - and something I’m still learning to have more of.
My self-love was tested. As a female, losing my hair was rough. In one fell swoop, it felt like someone took away my femininity. I chose not to wear a wig - because that’s just not me -and I gained 15 pounds because of all the steroids and meds I was on. So there I was... this bald, overweight cancer girl. I was in a dark place. I self-pitied for a hot second and then shook it off. Feeling sorry for myself may have felt good for the moment, but where was it going to get me? I wasn’t ashamed of having cancer. I wasn’t embarrassed of something I couldn’t control. And that’s how I got through it.
I put my head down, my game face on and barreled through a very unfortunate circumstance. I reminded myself every day that I am a beautiful woman - bald, with a few extra pounds, and all. I am a tough chick. A fighter. I visualized the finish line because there were no other scenarios for me. I’ve got a lot of life to live.
I’ve been very vocal and open about everything I went through. It actually helped me a lot. Talking about it and letting people understand my fears somehow made it better. Kinda like therapy. In return, I often have people tell me that I’m an “inspiration.” I gotta tell you, that word freaks me the fahk out! How am I an inspiration? I did what millions of people do, I fought my fight. But then, they explain that I inspired them with my positive attitude towards it all. That they couldn’t understand how I kept a smile the whole time. How I didn’t let life stop because I was sick. I was in control, not the other way around. They tell me they quit smoking because if I could get cancer by being healthy, what were they in store for? They tell me that I helped change their attitude because if I could just roll with the punches, they could too. I wasn’t trying to inspire anybody - but I’m sure glad I did.
If you take one thing away from my rant here, then I hope it’s the ability to let go. Let go of stereotypes. Let go of what coulda, shoulda, woulda. Live in the moment and be true to yourself. It will get you way farther than you think.
xx, Jacqueline Howard