It’s been several years since my friend and coworker, Julie Gillespie, passed on at age 31. Over the years, I’ve received numerous testimonies of how her eight-part series, chronicling her battle with cancer, has inspired and encouraged its readers. I’m confident that there are many others who can still benefit from Julie’s nakedly honest confessions and insight; therefore I am republishing her series in sequence. But I remind readers that this series evolved unplanned and unrehearsed over several months. Without further adieu, here’s Julie with part one, “The Rhythm of Life”.
“A phrase from a recent newspaper column caught my attention. A cancer patient told one of his caregivers that ‘Sometimes you have to lose your life to gain it.’ Truer words were never spoken. It took a cancer diagnosis to readjust my goals and encourage me to live my life for pure day-to-day enjoyment, instead of being constantly stressed by work and personal responsibilities. I am 27 years old and was diagnosed last year with ovarian cancer. This is what I have learned.
“Let me preface this with two truths I have learned. I do not think that God gave me cancer. Many times well meaning friends groping for something helpful to say will spew out meaningless platitudes. My personal favorite is ‘God did this for a reason. Everything happens for the best.’ Chemotherapy and losing my hair was not exactly the best thing that could’ve happened to me this last year. Granted it was far more acceptable than my other option, which was death, but given my choices, I would have been willing to bargain with God for say, a trip to Hawaii as opposed to cancer and chemotherapy. The second truth I have learned I actually read several years ago but never considered its significance. It is, ‘From great pain can come great compassion … but bitterness is easier.’ I have struggled and continue to do so with all three.
“My journey began in November of 2000, when after a few weeks of very vague symptoms, I finally had a diagnosis, but not the one I had hoped for. Instead of hearing that I was pregnant, which my husband and I had secretly wished for months, I had cancer. Not just cancer, my oncologist informed me, but Stage IV cancer with metastasis. I was facing a complete hysterectomy and months of chemotherapy. I went into shock and remained that way for at least a month. Eventually the mental fog cleared and gave way to unbearable anxiety and depression.
“Anyone given a diagnosis of cancer faces mental struggles. Anyone who is given the diagnosis and is a perfectionist is in for an incredibly bumpy ride. I know because as far back as I can remember, everything in my life had to go according to plan. Each task before me couldn’t just be completed but had to be done perfectly. I began setting goals for myself in grade school and continued throughout my life. Until I became sick, everything was moving along nicely and right on schedule. High school gave way to college, followed closely by marriage and a career in social work. This evolved into graduate school and a new house. My life was racing by, but I always thought, ‘Once I complete this I’ll be able to relax.’ I was very happy but always viewed where I was as a stepping stone to something better. Well guess what? I completed all my tasks only to have the rug pulled out from under me. Forget about planning the next phase of my life. I didn’t even know if I would be around. Our sense of security and safety was gone. Our dream of having children was gone, as were quite possibly, my job and financial security.
“Cancer forces you to live in the here and now like no other circumstance in your life. This is what I have struggled with for the last year, learning to live and enjoy what I have right now. It is difficult at times, but there is a freedom in it that I would have never experienced had I not gotten sick. I enjoy little things now like going to work every day, spending quiet evenings at home, and cooking big dinners. I love shopping with my mom and going for walks with my husband. I appreciate all of these things so much more because it means that I’m alive and in the rhythm of life.
“Don’t get me wrong. I still have my perfectionist traits. Dirty dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor make me cringe. A new fax machine at work that I could not use almost sent me over the edge, and of course, I’ve set goals for this year. The difference is that this year they are a little different. I’ll share a few of them with you.
1) I want to hop on the back of my husband’s motorcycle on a summer day and feel the wind in my face.
2) I want my twin nieces to spend the night with us and watch Disney movies.
3) I want to have a backyard barbecue with my work buddies.
4) I want to help my parents cook Thanksgiving dinner.
5) I want to use this experience to help others and give them hope.
“As you can see, I’ve mellowed a bit, but this took time. I did not come to this epiphany overnight but somewhere in the middle of 21 rounds of chemotherapy. I’ve cried, thrown temper tantrums, been bitter, and used quite a few obscenities before I could even consider something positive about this disease. I’ve also leaned that fighting cancer is just as much about your mind as your body. Fight to maintain a routine, and do not let yourself get out of the rhythm of life. If you do, you are in danger of losing not only your body but your spirit as well.“
I invite you to tune in next week for part two of Julie’s story titled, “To ask or not to ask”. Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 740-356-2525.