Overcoming the Whispers of Self-Doubt

On December 8th 2020, I published an article called Three Years Later. It was an unplanned release motived by the realization that the next day would be the three year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis; my cancerversary. It was 9:30pm on Monday December 7th and I was trying to will myself to sleep so I could get up early the next morning for a workout. I’ve decided I don’t mind waking up early to get a workout done alone, in blissful silence, before the rest of the world wakes up. And then it hit me…tomorrow was the day it happened three years ago. My eyes flew open, I turned on the light, picked up my phone and wrote that whole article in bed on my iPhone. It’s not quite the same as sitting at the dining room table with the laptop sitting in front of me but the words were coming fast and furious and I couldn’t will my brain or fingers to stop if I had tried.

Almost immediately after hitting the publish button (with a scheduled release time of about when I should have been getting up for my next workout), I wondered to myself, “Do people get sick of hearing me talk (or write) about my cancer journey?”. I imagined people seeing another article pop up and saying to themselves, ‘Yes Michelle. We know you had cancer. We know it sucked. It’s time to move on (insert eyeroll here)’. I wondered if any of the social mediums I’ve chosen to use, maybe I shouldn’t really be using. Is Facebook really the place to share the nature of my deep thought processes and emotions? What about Instagram, Twitter or email, if they have signed up for my mailing list? Assuming the risk of giving up too much too soon, and since I’m still down for shameless plugs, if you haven’t already, click the Follow link to subscribe!

That little voice in my head doesn’t rear it’s ugly head very often these days. It usually told untruths but still cast enough doubt in my mind to make me feel like a fraud. Like maybe I’ve crossed some invisible threshold that means I’ve gone from an empowered sick girl to a selfish turd who now capitalizes on the experience of too many people. In my PC life (pre-cancer), such a thought may have been enough to throw me into an emotional tailspin. I would have defended myself against those people who thought I was a fraud. It would have made me angry, which we know is just fear and shame wrapped in a scarier emotion. It could have led to a ‘fuck the world’ rant that would wind me up in a ball of stress and anxiety and would blow my ego up to the size of a hot air balloon, which I’ve learned only ever happens to protect ourselves. That was my old life. The old me I talked about in Three Years Later; the girl I don’t even know anymore.

The beauty of self-awareness is it breeds compassion, and if you practice it long enough, it even breeds self-compassion. And so, being able to sit in the discomfort of these thoughts allows me to understand some things I never would have understood in my PC life. The truth is, just because a person actively works on self-awareness and confidence, doesn’t mean it always exists. As much as I’ve worked over the least three years, there is lots of work still left to do. It took me 37 years to get that insecure in the first place and I expect it will take me as many years to walk it back. And that’s ok. What I am grateful for is the conscious awareness that this insecurity lives within me. It doesn’t make living with these thoughts any easier in the moment, but it does help me be more curious about why these thoughts and feelings happen in the first place. So, that’s what I did. I stood at my stove making scrambled eggs for Victoria and I and asked myself to sit with that discomfort and ponder on it. Why might I believe anyone would think that? Why does it really matter to me? And what if anyone actually did think those things?

It didn’t take long to determine it has nothing to do with anyone but me. Three years of practicing self-awareness had taught me to stop blaming anyone for anything. Sure, there are people out there that do mean spirited things but my purview of the world says they are not the majority. Quite simply, what it came down to is, I used to be like the people I imagined react negatively to my work. I spent 37 years denying my own mortality, and therefore, the mortality of others. Even now as I type this, I have a hard time just sitting with this moment. Mostly because of Covid19 now because I now exist on the side of the coin that desperately needs society to acknowledge their own mortality. The lives of immunocompromised people are literally relying on those people to help keep us safe. But I also remember how far I would go to avoid dealing with death before I didn’t have a choice.

It’s ironic that I spent my whole life wishing I had a huge family but don’t and so I never really dealt with death until I was 18 years old. And even then it wasn’t someone I knew well. It was my childhood best friends grandmother. She was a lovely woman. Well respected in her community and well loved by her family. We didn’t speak much but I did spend some time at her home during the holidays and such. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. Very briefly before walking into the funeral parlour, I wondered how I would feel about seeing an unoccupied body and moments later, realized she just looked like anybody else in deep sleep. It didn’t elicit much of an emotional response. Shortly after paying my respects, I sat with the family less than 15 feet from the casket and was completely overwhelmed by the amount of pain that existed in that room. I was supposed to be there to support my friend. I thought I needed to be strong for her, so I held it back but it took every ounce of strength in me not to cry a river of tears. I never wanted to feel that way again. And I did everything in my power to make sure I didn’t.

The thing with being diagnosed with a life threatening illness is, once we’ve been handed this burden, we will be faced with it for the rest of our lives. It walks with us every single day. Sometimes figuratively. Sometimes literally. I consider myself grateful to be one of the ones who death walks with figuratively (for now). In fact, maybe it’s even a source of the imposter syndrome my writing has been making me feel lately. I am one of the lucky ones. Others are not so lucky. My friend Rebecca, for instance, who I met at the Young Adults Cancer Canada (YACC) Survivors Retreat Ontario back in March 2020 before everything went sideways, is 40 years old with metastatic breast cancer with progression to her liver which she will inevitably live with for the rest of her life. Rebecca recently found out there is further progression and has begun a new trial at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Rebecca literally walks with the knowledge that one day, her cancer will get her. I mean, death will get us all but she no longer has the luxury of ignoring that very real fact.

As a person who was never willing to face illness and death, who actively did everything to avoid it and felt gross when forced to acknowledge it, I don’t have a choice anymore. And so active treatment or not, remission or not, moving on or not, it’s a part of me now. While I would love to take a trip in a hot tub time machine, nothing is going to change that. In fact, I’m not even sure I would. My feelings about this are messy. If I had the choice to turn back the clock and NOT go through this, would I do it? Immediately my brain screams ‘HELL YA!’. But spending a moment thinking about it, the most dramatic healing and growth of my life have taken place in the days since being handed this cancer shit bag. So, I’m not sure if given the chance, choosing not to experience this would be the best option for me. Who would I be now? Might I still be a high strung, anxiety ridden perfectionist? Might I still be inflicting all that on my family? Teaching my daughters to beat themselves up when they forget something at the grocery store? Or when they don’t know all the answers at school or work one day? Who knows. What I do know is, I’m not sure it’s a risk I’d be willing to take. Which really is a luxury in and of itself; guilt.

Once I joined the cancer club, I began meeting other people in the club. It’s why choosing who you surround yourself with, who your employer is, who your friends are, etc. is so important; some clubs you don’t have a choice to join. By choice or not, you become immersed in the club whether you like it or not. And while I wouldn’t have chosen to join this particular club, since I’ve been here, I’ve met some spectacular humans. I can remember some days sitting in Outpatient Day Services taking my daily infusion of Arsenic Trioxide surrounded by other patients and caregivers alike. Sometimes, when it wasn’t so busy in the ward (which wasn’t very often), even the nurses would get in on the conversation. We we’re like the IV Pole Gang. An exclusive membership which included a tool of destruction literally attached to us at all times. It was nice to have people who shared a common experience, if for no other reason, because they weren’t freaked out by that little tube pumping stuff into my body. It was just our reality at the time. No one understands it like the people who are in it too. The problem with this club is, the friends we make, sometimes we lose. Not all, but too many. Not because they did something shitty, they had kids or because their life priorities caused them to drift, but because they die.

The injustice of it is baffling. Infuriating. Oh so painful. Not only do we lose good people, but each and every one of them is a reminder that it could be us next. So, even if you’re so lucky to get to a point where your brush with death doesn’t feel like it was your reality at some point in the past, we are reminded. I spend hours of the day sometimes thinking about it. In fact, being back to work is a wonderful distraction. But I can’t change the fact that whether logical or illogical, death is a part of my reality. What’s more, I don’t blame anyone for how they react to seeing death, even the mere hint of it in their newsfeed. I know that repulsion. Sometimes I even miss the luxury of being ignorant to it. But I can’t. And again, I probably wouldn’t even choose to if given the chance because it’s given me the opportunity to empathize with others. Who knows what will happen to me. The fact is, I was unkind to myself physically and mentally in the first 37 years of my life. The mere fact that I’m writing this is evidence that sometimes I still am. I have to accept that something is going to get me sooner or later. But if someone uncomfortable with illness and death is willing to take 10 minutes of their day to walk with me through my experiences, maybe I can convince them of why acknowledging their own mortality is so damn important. Maybe I can help prevent them from having to go through what I’ve been through. Maybe I can help them experience the same healing and growth I’ve experienced without the diagnosis. Maybe I can save their life.

Maybe it’s super cliché to say but I believe I’m here for a reason. Let’s be honest, when it was all said and done and I had my first follow up appointment with my oncologist, he very candidly shared that they’ve never seen someone come into the hospital the way I did on December 8th, 2017, and then recovery the way I did. But there was a time that I was too tired, weak, scared to speak up and the weight of my reality was too heavy. Those who were going through or had gone through it before me helped to carry the burden with me to give me some relief. I will not take their kindness granted and I will not allow self-doubt to force me back into myself. I may not have cancer anymore but I will always be part of this community. I am just fortunate enough to have had my role change from the supported to the supporter. And for that reason, I will persevere.

Until next time, we’ve got this! Be well.

Published by Michelle Burleigh

Michelle is a highly driven, ambitious woman who gratefully possesses a love of learning and a passion for personal growth which support her ongoing healing and career growth. As a mother of two incredible young girls, a wife, and a patient advocate, and most recently, an author, she has not allowed her December 2017 diagnosis of Acute Leukemia stop her from making and achieving goals. She felt compelled to start SoYouveGotCancer.ca to help people and their loved ones feel more empowered and informed throughout their own healing journey.

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