How a cancer diagnosis changed the course of my life

It was one of those defining moments in time that I will never forget. I woke up last October at 5:30am and felt a very strong ‘pull’ to walk outside in my night gown. With my bare feet I touched the soft wet grass in my back yard and looked at one of my beautiful olive trees swaying gently in the wind. I lifted my head to look up in the sky which was starting to wake and show some light to welcome the morning. My body was overwhelmingly calm and my heart started to talk to me in that moment of complete stillness and solitude as my family slept inside.

I surrendered in that moment and started to listen. It was subtle and very powerful. The whisper was clear – the message defining. “You are tired. Your body is exhausted. Your mind is running fast. Slow down. What are you doing with the hours of your day? Is it what you really want to be doing? Is it the right fit? Is this the contribution that you want to be making in your life right now? How connected do you feel with the important people around you? What is your true purpose? What legacy do you want to leave when you die?…’

It smacked me right in the face with a kick up the arse all at the same time. I started to feel numb and scared. My body didn’t move. I stood there for what felt like an eternity in complete stillness until my feet started to feel cold and tingly on that wet grass. I looked down and noticed that my feet were swollen and my toenails brittle. I took a deep breath, then turned my tired body around slowly and walked straight back inside to read the newspaper, have my cup of coffee and get ready for my busy day ahead.

Fear is a natural reaction to getting closer to the truth.

Two weeks had passed and in the usual juggle of life and work I tried to forget and squash that moment. But, it just wouldn’t leave me. It was taking over my thoughts and feelings and the niggle forced me to do something about it. I had 15 minutes to spare in between my back-to-back meetings at work to go to the bathroom and grab a glass of water. In a quick moment of courage I walked into a meeting room and called my dear friend and mentor of 20 years and said “I think it is time”. I wasn’t sure what I was completely talking about – but I knew in that moment of bravery that I just had to ‘call it’.

It was gut wrenching because my life was full of wonderful elements. A beautiful family. Great friends. I enjoyed my job. I loved the people that I worked with. I was given plenty of support, growth opportunities and sponsorship to succeed in my chosen path. This feeling was quite unexpected.

I was almost breathless as I spoke on the phone and my hand was shaking as I paced up and down. She said to me that she had a strong feeling the night before to call me – but it was too late. It was probably the same time that I had thought of her. The universe had ‘done its job’ that night and in that moment I felt someone take my hand with a very strong grip.

The secret to change and growth is not willpower, but positive community.

This moment of clarity can be traced back to almost three years ago when I took a new professional photo for work. When I received a copy of that photo I noticed that my neck looked quite disfigured. I immediately moved my hand to touch my neck to feel what it was. I felt a very large lump growing around my neck and was shocked that I had not noticed it before. I walked home that night after work and started to realise that it was pushing against my lungs which made it difficult for me to breath. I was frightened.

After a gruelling round of many tests and scans I was referred to a specialist who told me that the growth needed to be removed immediately. Two weeks later I was being wheeled into the operating theatre to remove a cancerous tumour which just happened to be my thyroid gland. After an unsettling and painful recovery and two week wait I received a phone call from my specialist letting me know that I got the ‘all clear’ and the cancer was removed and had not spread into my lymph nodes. I remember sitting on my dining room table in solitude and complete silence staring into the distance….feeling numb in disbelief… and grateful that I had literally dodged a bullet. I decided to just get on with my life because I was one of the ‘lucky ones’ and I should not dwell.

I learnt over time that you just can’t ‘get on with things’ when you experience something so emotionally and physically significant. Feelings of overwhelm, denial, anger and fear surfaced due to the diagnosis of cancer which I needed to deal with ‘head on’. The physical recovery of not having a thyroid and allowing my body to cope without this organ was tricky as the thyroid regulates vital body functions such as your breathing, heart rate, central and peripheral nervous system, muscle strength and body temperature.

Getting the medication right took time and building strength back into my body was hard as I spent a considerable amount time travelling for my job whilst enduring a busy schedule of work and family commitments. I was tired. I was exhausted. And, emotionally drained. Who wouldn’t be?

I worked through my difficult emotions and then came the shift. A shift into a space of gratitude. Gratitude for the fact that I didn’t die. That I only had one life to live. This struggle had positively changed my outlook on life. I felt a strong desire to do things that I had always wanted to do – but never had the time or felt the courage. What was that I asked myself? I wasn’t sure. But I knew I had to find out. Life is too short.

Exploring comes from being open to the possibility of diving head first into the unknown – trust that the feeling of discomfort and vulnerability are necessary in an effort to uncover something new.

And I wanted to be ‘all in’ – throw myself right at it and give it my full attention and energy. I wanted to be ‘in the arena’ and not sit on the outside of it. I knew that I never really gave myself the time to recover fully from the trauma. I also acknowledged that I had been working for over 20 years without a solid break. It was time to take a sabbatical.

A sabbatical is typically an extended period away from work and is commonly used to explore new areas of your personal and professional life.

It has been over eight months now since I started my sabbatical. A sabbatical to take time out to recover, rest and rejuvenate. A sabbatical to spend time with my loved ones and live life to the absolute fullest – with no holding back. A sabbatical to reflect and think deeply about my personal and professional desires. A sabbatical to build my inner strength and allow my authentic self to emerge.

After the first three months my body had healed and I felt fantastic. I was rested, rejuvenated and those brittle toe nails became strong with the swelling on my feet gone. But the niggle was still there. That voice wouldn’t disappear. And I knew that the next decision was a truly personal one. I made the psychological commitment to ‘burn the boat’ and resign from my job. It was a very intentional decision. It was a very difficult decision. And, yes, I cried.

I loved that boat. I loved the people on the boat. I looked after the boat – I helped fill the holes, mend the cracks, stabilise during the turbulent times, cooked for the people on that boat, celebrated the wins and assisted to steer it in the right direction. It represented comfort. It represented personal growth. It represented my identity. It also represented my daily validation.

Burning the boat was scary. But I needed to burn it and jump off it into the water. To leap. To be brave. To throw my whole self into a space where I could not retreat. Where I would do or die. Sink or swim. There was to be no hedging. No looking over my shoulder. No going back. And, quite miraculously over time you begin to develop incredible swimming skills!

Safety nets can protect us from pain – but they also tend to reduce the effort, focus and commitment to move forward and live your most authentic life.

Even though the time so far has been nourishing and personally fulfilling – it must be said that the journey I have been travelling has been very difficult at times. You are literally ‘stepping out’ to walk into the wilderness with no ‘fall back plan’ and no definitive path ahead. It is not for everyone. And nor should it be.

I was warned that there would be mixed reactions. And they came thick and fast. No holding back! Some people that I respected and admired judged or walked away. Some people made quiet jokes on the sidelines or in my presence. Others just simply stopped calling. Those moments were incredibly difficult to stomach and at times really hurt – especially in the beginning. Others, however, came forward and offered unlimited support, mentorship and colourful pom poms as they cheered in the audience when I walked out into that arena on my own wearing my Tiffany Trelour silk dress and red shoes. And there they remain – eight months later – with a firm grip holding me up as I continue on my journey ahead.

And that’s where I continue to be for a little while longer as I start to emerge with the beginnings of some clarity around the creation of what will be the design of a very rich tapestry of my life ahead. A tapestry with a bold gold border and many bright colours weaved throughout it. A true expression of ‘me’ is starting to emerge – slowly – and I am getting small glimpses of the potential contribution that I want to make to this world and the legacy I want to leave.

I am starting to understand what it means to be fulfilled on the inside without the need for material possessions or external validation. I am starting to feel much stronger and more authentic. And I am experiencing intense joy that I had never felt before.

I am almost impatient to see what happens next – but know that it will take a bit more time, personal struggle and daily commitment to allow the universe to open up to do its work and reveal what is in store for me. And then – the time will come where I will need to embrace and go along for the ride of a lifetime!

I will leave you with a poem that I was encouraged to read from a former work colleague and Partner from EY. This is what he wrote in my farewell card.

Dear Silvia, to put it simply, I am going to miss you. It’s a bitter sweet moment, and I love your courage and sense of self. In your spare time, look up Robert Frost’s – The Road Not Taken – it’s on point.

And yes it was.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I keep the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Until next time.

7 thoughts on “How a cancer diagnosis changed the course of my life

  1. These are such beautiful words coming straight from your heart Silvia. Did you know that heart means “coeur” in French, and that is also the root of the word “courage”? You never lacked courage, and likely never will, whichever road you chose to travel. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Was wondering why I hadn’t bumped into you lately. Had dinner with your Mum and little sis – asked after you, but it seems I wasn’t truly listening. You’re awesome. Thanks for sharing and inspiring xx

    Like

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