Living Fully: A story of survival

By: Michelle Gunnin

I remember the exact place I was when I heard the words, “You have cancer.” I can picture what the office looked like, the face of the doctor, and the reaction of my husband.  Those images will always be like a snapshot that I can recall in an instant. I was in an examining room. I was sitting in a chair, and my husband Bill was standing by my side. The doctor had called earlier in the day; she asked me to come in following a procedure to remove polyps from my uterus. I knew in my head it probably wasn’t good; therefore, I asked my husband to come along. I figured when a doctor calls and asks you to come after office hours on a Friday afternoon, it cannot be good news.

“Let’s not borrow trouble,” my husband said, adding, “It may not be bad.” In reality, he was as scared as I was when we climbed the stairs. We held hands, mostly in silence, while we waited for the doctor.

She was in quickly and started with, “There are a couple of things we need to talk about.” The first one? Diabetes. It seems my blood test came back showing some glucose issues, but I had a feeling the other shoe was about to drop when she said, “But we are going to put diabetes on the back burner for a minute.”

I knew then. My heart knew. There is only one thing that can put diabetes on the back burner. My husband squeezed my hand; he knew too. Waiting for the “C” word to be spoken was like time going in slow motion. I prayed for God to hold me up. I braced myself for the physical impact I knew was coming, and then she said it.

“The cells we found are cancer.” My hands covered my face. Tears came unbidden. I doubled over as though I had been punched in the stomach. Gasp. Air. I needed air. I had to remind myself to breathe. Bill had his arm around me, already slipping into the caretaker role trying to shield me from the pain. When the doctor said to take a minute, there were tears of compassion in her eyes. Bill was on his knee now, holding my head to his chest, stroking my hair. I could hear his heart beating 100 mph and feel his quick breaths. Then, he kicked into labor coach mode.

“Deep breaths,” he told me. In. Out. In. Out. One or two breaths and the questions started racing through my mind. They were having a tug of war with images of my girl and three boys. Four children ages 10, 12, 14, 16. What does this mean for them? I wondered. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Slow motion switched to fast forward in my brain. My need for information won the tug of war, and I sat up ready to hear the rest.

The thing was, there wasn’t a whole lot more to tell. I guess I expected to know how far it had spread, what the treatment would be, and how bad it was. I knew NOTHING about cancer. My mind was in a fog and trying to formulate the right questions. I didn’t even know what to ask. Bill was asking something about what was next. I nodded. That seemed to be a good question…yes what is next…good one. So we listened, trying to take it in. More tears came when I heard the words surgery…next week…tests…blood work…pre-op. I have a phobia of all things medical. This had to be my worst nightmare. My thoughts were…someone, please wake me up. Please.

My doctor tried to give us hope that maybe we caught it early, and if it hadn’t spread, I would only need surgery, and that would be it. Honestly, she didn’t know at that time I had two types of cancer, ovarian and uterine, which would require chemotherapy after my hysterectomy. In those early tender moments, we left her with a hug and a referral to an oncologist for the next week. She gave us her home phone number. She was the first doctor, in a long line of those to come, who would do so. It was my first indicator that I was in a new land…a doctor’s home number. I put on my bravest determined-to-fight face and thanked her for being so kind. I noticed, even in my fog, that as we left she hung her head. She hated this as much as we did.

This was my introduction into what I have come to call Cancerland.  It was an entirely different culture than what I was used to.  I was a foreigner in a foreign land.  Cancerland has its own currency, everything costs 5 times as much in money…not to mention the emotional cost.   It is in a different time zone, where a “normal” office visit can take 3 or more hours, and you can tell who the newbies are when they ask the question, “How long is this going to take?”  The language is difficult to learn, but when you are immersed in it, you find you quickly learn names of chemicals, blood tests, and scan procedures. There is even a national dress in this place…comfy clothes that allow easy access to veins, ports, and incisions.  Headdresses of colorful – scarves, interesting hats, and wigs of all shades are the norm, but do not fully hide the baldness underneath.

Cancerland is a melting pot.  You meet people of every age, nationality, and socioeconomic level there, and you are instantly bonded by the shared experiences cancer brings. The climate is one of fear, though no one speaks of it.  The courage of a lifted head is the national symbol, and standing tall with determination is the banner under which every citizen of this place walks. The national pastime is Perspective Changing.  Things that were once important fall to the wayside.  Things not fully appreciated come to the forefront.  It is upside down living at its best.  The fact is that this pastime alters your reality and causes you to examine your life on every level.

I learned that control is an illusion, as is safety.  There are no guarantees for any human.  Today is all we have.  I did not know if I would survive or not, and that changed everything about the way I lived my life.  I became intentional in my conversations.  My kids would climb onto the bed with me on the days I felt too sick to move.  They told me of their days. Some of them talked about deep things, others shared stories from school.  I had never noticed how beautiful these daily conversations were before.  My friends showed up by cooking and cleaning and caring for my kids.  What wonderful people I know. New appreciation covered me like a cloak. I found that the big things in life are really the little things, and the little things are the ones that matter most.

Living fully became my new motto, because as I engaged in the national pastime of Cancerland, I found that the life I had been living BC (before cancer) was not full.  I was just passing the time waiting for someday.  Someday, I will write a book after the kids are grown.  Someday, I will travel the world, once I retire. On and on the somedays went.  It occurred to me in an epiphany that someday might never come. It was like a lightning bolt from the sky. What if I don’t make it till the kids are grown?  It was a very real possibility that the cancer would take my life, taking my somedays with it.  The Perspective Changing of Cancerland did its work in me. I learned what living fully really means, and that changed everything.

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  1. Congratulations on so much more than surviving. As one who also had the “C” word aimed her way, decades ago now, your post brought back the day I heard those words as if they had just been spoken. My gut lurched again.

    Posts like yours, while difficult to read, extend a message that we all need to hear, *especially* when we would rather not consider these thoughts: waking up tomorrow is not guaranteed for ANY of us.

    Extending practical help to those who need it means more than they realize until they need it themselves. I especially want to underscore that portion of your post.

    Loved this: “New appreciation covered me like a cloak. I found that the big things in life are really the little things, and the little things are the ones that matter most.”

    Good job!
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

  2. Wow, dear Michelle, your poignant writing unwrapped the gift of “perspective” cancer gives to the patient and her family. I’m so glad you beat it. Finding a lump and having to have it examined by two methods was a big enough scare to motivate me to get working on my memoir with more urgency. I didn’t hear the dreaded “C” word, but I admire any and all who have not only heard it, but have beaten it too. May you continue to be a winner.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Wendy, Thanks for your encouragement. Having a scare is also an effective wake up call. That waiting on results thing will get your heart beating every time! Glad you didn’t have cancer…also glad you allowed the fear to motivate you to get writing! I can’t wait to read your memoir. We can exchange them if I ever finish mine!

  3. Michelle, all I can say is Wow! My heart goes out to you. That story pierced my soul. I’ve only been in the battle helping others. I must say, there is no enjoyment in that either. The words you have shared with us and me with all of your stories combined, touched my thoughts and heart. I admire the fact you and your husband have stayed true to each other through all of your life ordeals. I tip my hat to your entire family. John.

    • John, The caregiver role is just as hard as being the patient. I am convinced of that! It is just hard in a different way. I won big when I found Bill. He is my rock. We have both been the patient and the caregiver to one another. Kind of bonds us in ways nothing else could. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Hi, Michelle. Thank you once again, for capturing the emotions, thoughts and reactions of those of us who have gotten the diagnosis of cancer. Mine came at 19 and my sister’s at 15. We are DES daughters. I was fortunate that I could “drop out of school and alter all my life plans” and quickly have two children before my hysterectomy at 23. She had hers at 16.

    This is our only someday. Thank you for stating that so well.

    Excellent job of writing about some of the unpopular topics – diseases and coping with them. I say unpopular, because people are hesitant to be as honest as you were, and unfortunately, anything else just rings false.

    • Marilyn, Cancer changes everything, doesn’t it? Sounds like your family has had more than your share of it. I can’t imagine having it so young! Brokenness and pain are often untouchable topics, but they are also some of the most real. I have to be real if nothing else. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  5. Michelle,
    As the editor, I don’t often comment on our posts. I feel like it’s my duty to stay in the background and do my job; however, as I edited this and prepared it for publication, I was moved to tears thinking of what you and your family went through. As a writer, you are exceptionally good at conveying the raw emotion of your experiences to the reader. I’m so glad we found you, – a gem – and that you are a part of the Two Drops family. I commend you for sharing this story with our readers.

    • Wow. Thanks for the kind comments! I think the writers that grab me most are the ones who do not shy away from the real life emotions of real people. It is why I share fully. I want my story to reach others who are afraid to share theirs.

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