- Created: Friday, 18 April 2014 14:47
We came from all over the world, all walks of life, socioeconomic status and age. Nearly 200 women whose lives were changed forever by one sentence: “You have breast cancer”. We were accompanied by our best friends, sisters and a few brave husbands. We had all come together for a Breast Cancer Thriver’s Cruise sponsored by Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine.
My heart was heavy as I bid farewell to my two young sons. They were sad to see their mom leave for six nights. My husband put on a brave face and promised to serve at least one vegetable at every meal. Even the dogs seemed anxious as I departed...who would fill their water bowl and take them for long walks every day? Ah yes...we women tend to hold down the fort for the entire family but I knew my time away would benefit everyone.
I was alone in my endeavor to set sail, meet others and perhaps make a few friends. I had no idea that this cruise would be life changing. Simply escaping the demands of everyday life with women who “get it” would have been enough for me. I was excited to meet my roommate, a survivor from Australia with whom I had connected via social media but had never met in person. Giddy anticipation set in as my shuttle dropped me at the airport.
I contemplated the last eighteen months of my life as the plane hummed along. Everything changed the day I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. The year of treatment that followed was grueling: five surgeries, sixteen weeks of chemotherapy and twenty eight radiation treatments. The hidden scars were far worse than the eleven physical scars scattered across my body. Fears of recurrence, coping with an altered body image, trying to find a new normal once treatment ended...perhaps this trip would help put those things behind me.
Words cannot express the power of coming together with these women, my fellow survivors as we set sail, leaving the cares of the world in our wake. As we met one another, our initial conversations often centered around our diagnoses, some women offering great detail, others barely concealing their fear hiding just below the surface. Other women shared their day of diagnosis from many moons ago, their scars long healed and their fears lessened with the gift of time.
My roommate challenged me with a simple question:
"What are you doing to LIVE as opposed to what are you doing not to die?"
I faced my biggest fears as I met women who had been diagnosed with recurrences. Many of them were treating their metastatic breast cancer as a chronic condition. Still others who were struggling with the ebb and flow of searching for the perfect combination of treatment as the tumors outsmarted their current chemotherapy regimen. These breast cancer warriors taught me that you can overcome even the biggest challenges with this disease. Their zest for laughter and life healed my soul and put my fears to rest. The freedom to discuss nipples, reconstruction and living with chemo brain was refreshing. As our ship took us to foreign lands, our conversations focused less on the sinister topic of breast cancer and broadened to include lives with children, husbands, travels, careers, our hopes and dreams for the future. We formed friendships and a sisterhood that will last a lifetime.
We overindulged in magnificent cuisine together every night, learned life saving lessons from speakers and danced the night away. We set out on our own adventures in Belize and Cozumel, returning each night to share tall tales of fun and excitement. Many of us tackled new challenges for the first time ever...zip lining, cave tubing, exploring Mayan ruins, snorkeling, spinnaker rides or just strolling along the beautiful beaches and shopping in the markets. One of the highlights was checking an item off my bucket list at our port in Cozumel: swimming with dolphins with my roommate!
As we prepared to disembark from six days together, hugs, phone numbers and a few tears were exchanged. As my plane made its way back to reality, I contemplated the effects of this trip. I have never felt more a part of the 2.9 million breast cancer survivors living in the United States today. We’ve all learned to cope with our diagnosis in our own way, but every one of us on the cruise stands united in our desire to embrace life to the fullest. The bonds I made are indestructible, but more importantly, this was a monumental step in moving past my diagnosis. My roommate and new friend for life challenged me with a simple question: “What are you doing to live as opposed to what are you doing not to die?” I’m steadfast in my quest to embrace every moment of life, but this cruise helped me move past my fear of dying.
It's interesting to contemplate the fact that being diagnosed with breast cancer gave me the opportunity to meet these brave, beautiful women who taught me many lessons in such a short amount of time. The storms of life are challenging and breast cancer can be a long, dark storm. This cruise was a big, bright rainbow for which I will be eternally grateful!
© Copyright 2014-2016 Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW. All Rights Reserved.