When something makes your life go BOOM, the natural question is, “Why me?” (For maximum effect, try shaking your fist at the sky.) This may seem like a whiny question because deep down we all know that life throws curveballs from time to time. But truly uncovering the answer to the “Why me?” question may be the key to healing and moving on.
For me, the “curve ball” was having brain cancer as a young adult. For others, the sudden and unexpected change might be an abrupt ending of a job, a loss of a parent, a house fire, the death of a friend—anything that radically changes life as we know it and pulls us in an entirely new direction. These are defining moments. But what is the definition? That’s the real point: When you are forced to redefine your life, you have the opportunity to CHOOSE the new definition. Think of it like a story you tell yourself about who you are: Your personal narrative.
My story is that cancer interrupted my life at age 24, right when my career was taking off and I was in love with a man I was hoping to marry. Instead, I was told I was going to die and when that didn’t happen, I was launched 3,000 miles back into my childhood bedroom to recover. This was my new reality.
Suddenly in the midst of a life-and-death struggle, there was no time to feel sorry for myself, for everything I had lost. It was only years later that I realized I had the right to be sad—and yes angry too—for cancer invading my life. Years after the fact, I had to “feel through” all these emotions I had buried. And I learned that expressing these “negative” feelings wasn’t going to make me sicker, but in fact, was the key to helping me heal.
I had to make sense of my cancer experience—to define this “defining moment” for myself. Eventually, this helped me connect to my cancer experience so that cancer wasn’t something that just happened to me, but something that was part of me.
Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony then bearing an untold story inside of you.” The meaning we give our experience, the story we tell ourselves and others, is what helps us gain perspective and move forward.
For me, the meaning of my illness was my wake-up call from the life I had been living and the key to the life that could become. To me, the life I could create meant making the choice to structure my life to meet my needs. Call it mindfulness—living life consciously and intentionally—that was my turning point.
As I explored the answer to “Why me?” I made changes in my life to get well and stay well. Through a process of self-reflection, I realized that I truly missed that creative kid I had been as a child – a facet of myself that had somehow gotten squeezed from me as a young adult. So I consciously decided to live my life creatively. I also decided to surround myself with happy, motivated individuals who were living their passions, just like I hoped to do.
I decided to say no to “real” jobs and became a dedicated volunteer instead. I learned to play the piano, something I had always wanted to do. I windsurfed around the world. I began putting myself out there in real and honest ways, to encourage people to be that way with me. Not only did I get better and stay better, but this “new me” made me feel alive in a way I had never felt before. Living with the meaning I defined for myself helped me feel the “flow” of a life, and I felt content and fulfilled.
Although my cancer originally stripped away my identity, it let me build a new one, on my own terms. Oddly enough, the gift that my cancer gave to me was freedom—that I could choose to live my life exactly the way I wanted to live it. Why me? Because I needed this gift. Maybe this is always the person I was meant to become. But without brain cancer, I don’t know how I would have gotten here.