Today I am thrilled to have my friend Julie guest posting here, with a very powerful post that has stuck with me since I first read it.
I met Julie on an incredible house boating trip to Lake Powell with 5 other couples in the summer of 2007. She was a friend-of-a-friend and she and her husband had done this trip before. Fresh from finishing her chemotherapy for breast cancer, this 34 year old dynamo with the spiky hair was an inspiration to me.
Three and a half cancer-free years later, she still is.
In 2007 I was featured in an article in Women’s Adventure Magazine about Breast Cancer Survivors (“Beyond the PINK RIBBON,” September 2007). I was quoted as saying “Exercise has given me the opportunity to get some control of my body back. For a while, you are actively treating cancer, beating it, and you have a plan. When chemo is over, it’s like, ‘Now what do I do?’”
Surviving breast cancer at age 34 was the biggest challenge in my life. When you are first told you have cancer it’s similar to falling down Alice in Wonderland’s hole. There is confusion and darkness and strange thoughts swirling all around you. But once you have a treatment plan in place, it is very much like having a training plan in place: steps to follow to get you through to the finish line.
Have you ever finished a race and thought – Now what? Maybe fallen out of your routine and stumbled around until you found your next adventure? That is very similar to how I felt once I was finished with my treatment. Except this time I also had missing eyebrows, baldness, lack of energy, and even though I was “disease free” I felt worse than I had ever felt. I had a very hard time navigating my way back to me.
So I headed back to the corporate world with my G.I. Jane hair. And never have I had such clarity as to how much of my confidence as a business woman comes from the way I look. I know this sounds really superficial, and I truly didn’t mind being bald at all, but boy was I self conscious of how I looked when I started this new job. These people didn’t know me before I had cancer and I felt like they all looked right through me. If they did see me, they certainly don’t see me for who I am. They can’t possibly understand the changes I’ve gone through in the past year, the emotional struggles I’ve overcome, the years I’ve aged, or the knowledge that I’ve gained. To them, I’m just another body in the hall…that looks like a teenage boy with really big implants. This is the first time my hair style looks intentional. I don’t like it. But hey, I am not my hair.
It was very strange to sit there and listen to the full time employees from the information security department talk about the importance of how an intern’s email account was deactivated and it halted his productivity. It doesn’t seem that important to me. All I could hear is the ding dong of the instant messages, and the feverish typing every few seconds of the man in the cubicle next to me. But who am I to judge the instant messaging habits of this guy I don’t know. He might not be chatting about his weekend plans, or the music he just downloaded on company time. Maybe just maybe, he is talking to his virtual friend about something that really counts…like my hair! Oh wait… I am not my hair. But honestly it all seemed so trivial, I’m not sure any of it matters in the grand scheme of things.
When I went into the office for the first time, trying to emerge to a “normal” life, my boss was very welcoming. I knew him before I had cancer and for whatever reason I felt much more comfortable around the people who knew the “old” me. After giving me a ninety minute “welcome to the company, here is your job, go do it.” speech, Jon asked “So, how are you?”
“I’m good. I’m changed. It’s been hard.”
“Changed for the better?” He asked.
“Yes, for the better.” I said.
“This seems common after someone deals with cancer. Let me ask you this…would you wish this upon a friend?”
“No. No. No. – Hell NO!” Ok, I didn’t say the “Hell No” part to my boss, but I thought it.
“Really? Even though you say it’s changed you for the better?” He asked.
“Maybe if there was a guaranteed cure. But then you wouldn’t have to face the same fears and you wouldn’t have to overcome the same challenges.”
Then he asked me some questions about chemo and facing death. I told him while holding back the tears (…Don’t cry at work! Don’t cry at work! Especially on your first day…) that there were times when I wanted to stop treatment. I wanted to quit. I wanted to throw up my arms and say just forget it!
And he said, “But you did it for your kids and your husband.”
“Yes, I did it for Jillian, Libby and MJ.”
“Do you think that you will forget the lessons you learned?”
I guess I was afraid I would. It was strange; I wanted so desperately to get back to my old “normal” life back, but I was afraid. I was afraid I’d forget what it’s like to face death, forget that life can change in an instant, forget that I truly appreciate my friends and family, and forget that I am not my hair. I was having a hard time remembering the last one that day. I don’t think that I will ever forget these lessons I’ve learned, and I will try my hardest not too.
I only worked at this corporate job for 18 months. My hair started growing out and I realized that having the “old” me back wasn’t what I really wanted – she took a lot for granted, worried about the little things, and cared a lot about her hair. I think in the end I am supposed to be this beautiful emerged butterfly. And I think I am for the most part. I hardly recognize myself in pictures from before cancer, and I physically don’t look that different but I’m clearly not the same person.
So now I am 3 1/2 years out from my diagnosis. I have started a new company called Thin Air Nutrition with my husband MJ and another couple (Shannon and Ben Hall) who are passionate about healthy living. We met during a random act of kindness as Shannon gave me her favorite bandana the day after I had lost all my hair.
Thin Air Nutrition is a nutritional supplement company dedicated to everyday wellness. One of our first product concepts was a Healthy Breast supplement for women’s balance designed to “Save the Hooters”. The formula is based on the supplements many of my doctors have encouraged me to incorporate into my diet. We also have many other products including a superb Essential Fatty Acids blend, which by the way has done wonders for my hair.
It seems sometimes we don’t need a training plan to end up where we belong.
Julie is the owner of Thin Air Nutrition in Littleton, CO. Thin Air donates a portion of their sales to cancer research, outreach and awareness. Please visit them at www.thinairnutrition.com.