There are few things that change your life and leave you feeling more helpless and heartbroken than cancer. To watch someones body fail them while their alert mind looks on powerlessly can test you in ways you never expected and leave you questioning everything. When I was 13, I watched the grandfather that I adored beyond words vanish in a matter of months with lymphoma. At 22, I sat at the bedside of my great-uncle the day he learned that his stomach pain was actually a malignant tumor that would take his life in a matter of weeks. At 26 one of my childhood “adopted fathers” passed away with lung cancer and then not long after another one of my grandfathers was also taken. Over the last 8+ years I have also witnessed the slower battle my aunt fought and lost with breast cancer.

As I type this, one of my step-grandmothers (the family tree is a bit confusing) is slipping away due to pancreatic cancer. I spoke with her yesterday for what will likely be the last time. The conversation started with light joking but before long I found myself desperate to tell her all of things I want her to know in case it was my only chance. We are never really taught the language of dealing with an impending loss but we are instead given default phrases like “you are in our thoughts and prayers” to use as crutches. Instead I told her all of the things I would tell everyone else at her funeral because that is what I would want to hear. I told her that she has always made me laugh with her no-nonsense commentary and wry sense of humor; I let her know how lucky I have felt to have her as a part of my life; and for the first time in knowing her I told her how much I love her.

If there is any grace in cancer, it is found in the time left to say goodbye. For those that survive, it is also the life changing perspective and new found appreciation for every new day. I am thankful to not have lost everyone that I have loved who has been diagnosed with cancer or else this list would be much longer.

Perhaps this tragic dance with death has played a role in who I have become and why I try to constantly push every day to the fullest.

I found this beautiful quote from the Center for Loss and Trauma by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore that captures many of the feelings associated with cancer:

This great undertaking.
This grief.

I don’t believe I have the power
to face it alone.

To conquer the helplessness, the desperation, the agony
in every cell of my body. The pain that winds its way
from the tips of my hair to the tips of my toes.

For the first time in my life
I realize
that I have changed.
That I need others.

Written by Nikki