Gerri Willis Shares How Her Breast Cancer Taught Her to Live Day by Day
With that win under my belt, I decided that to get through the remaining four months of treatment, I would have to rethink my approach. I broke down every step I would have to complete. Each visit to the doctor would be a win. Every treatment a celebration. I mounted a white board in my office, so I could track every move forward.
With a sense of accomplishment behind me, I began to reach out to others. Never good at asking for help, I started small, talking to other women in the waiting room, instead of regarding them as the “sick people.” Now, I knew, I was sick too! Surely, if women in their seventies could handle these treatments, I could as well. I was beginning to feel confident.
My mom had stayed with me during the first surgery and now I encouraged my brother to come for a visit. But our time together would transform my happiness from a rollercoaster high into something deeper and more permanent. I was learning the power of family and personal relationships in a way I never had.
It was the first time my brother, Steve, and I had spent time together, just the two of us, since we were kids. I got to know my brother as the successful grown-up he is and he helped me with many of the emotional hurdles I was facing, explaining how as a pastor he dealt with anxiety and disappointment. This is an experience that I carried beyond my cancer year and into my new life.
But no lesson was more important than this: I learned to take life day by day and hour by hour. If cancer teaches you anything at all, it’s that life is not guaranteed. You have to enjoy it where you are. As I counted down the treatments, I started spending more and more time at our second home in the Berkshires, where I took long walks in the woods. Just sitting outside during the late summer and early fall was a tonic for me. It relaxed me and forced me to think of things other than my next treatment. I began to notice how beautiful the trees were and how lovely the stream was near our house. I started a meditation program.
I wasn’t crying because I was sad. Instead, I felt lucky.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget sitting in a lawn chair at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, Tanglewood, on a sparkling summer morning as the orchestra played Mozart. My husband and I had been planning the visit for a long time, but were forced to delay our visit on several occasions because of bad weather — and of course, the cancer. So here we were, finally, listening to the BSO rehearse its weekend program. Their music was stunning, made even more beautiful by the backdrop of mountains, the blue sky and my husband, David, sitting next to me. I tried to hide the tears flowing down my cheeks. Thankfully, I am wearing a broad-brim hat. I had so looked forward to this day! And, now here it was and I was blessed enough to enjoy it. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. Instead, I felt lucky.
For me, fighting breast cancer tried and tested my most basic assumptions about living. Take the assumption that I had about getting sick. I believed that I would get treated, battle through recovery and work to regain my former self. In other words, my goal was getting back to normal. But here’s the thing: My new self is truly better than my old self. It sounds strange and foreign as a concept. How can you suffer through a battle with a life threatening disease and come out better than when you started? Well, you have to start by overcoming your fears. And, that means facing up to them. Stop yourself from feeling overwhelmed by breaking down the task of treatment and recovery into small, manageable steps. Celebrate even the small wins! And, finally, pull your friends and family closer to that you can enjoy each and every day and every hour!
Gerri Willis covers personal finance and consumer topics for the Fox Business Network, where she is an anchor and reporter.