Cancer taught me how to live

Terminal illness has a way of awakening our greatest potential. When Cara was diagnosed with breast cancer the parts of life that had lay dormant began to bloom. She was reborn.

While studying to become a computer programming consultant Cara lost sight of everything else in her life–relationships, friendships, family–nothing mattered except getting that certification. “When you don’t lead a well balanced life, the parts that you ignore will come back to bite you, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Cara. “But I passed the exam. I was so excited—I was finally certified. I was going to have the career that I dreamed of.”

About a week later, Cara was home and having a lumpectomy and woke up in the recovery room to a crying surgeon telling her parents that the lump in her breast was malignant. “I went home and stayed there for the entire weekend and sobbed — just sobbed. I thought it was the end of the world.”

But when the doctors said, “We need you to have a biopsy,” Cara didn’t think about her recently passed exams, she thought, “I never took those tango lessons, I never read those books, I never did any of those things, and, I’m not going to have the opportunity to do that anymore–because I thought it was a death sentence.” She quickly learned that she had the ability within herself to turn the situation into something good if she would trust and be open to it.

“I had never known anyone before who’d had cancer, and I just thought that was the end of the world,” said Cara. “I decided I would make a list of all the things that I had never done, and during the recovery period between surgery and chemotherapies, I would do all those things.”

During her chemotherapy Cara went to live on her parent’s farm. She realized the impact your environment can have on every part of your life. It can inspire you, give you hope, and help you be more productive. But it can also fight you, become a source of stress, or take away your motivation.

“Because I had absorbed myself in my career, I had let my house go. I wasn’t decorating anymore. I didn’t even have a bedspread,” said Cara.

While recovering from chemo, Cara’s therapist gave her an assignment… to redecorate the bedroom. “I thought, ‘redecorate my bedroom?’ I don’t have time for that. But it was an experiment that changed my life.”

Cara discovered that “by going back and redoing that place—where I laid under the covers and sobbed for 72 hours, where there had been so much pain—by painting the walls, by redoing, taking down the wallpaper, I was healing the room. Somehow that healing of the room was healing me.”

This transformation got Cara thinking. She started a company called Spicy Spaces to share the joy of helping people see their environment with a fresh eye.

Among the many things on Cara’s list of things to do was catching up on all those books she had been meaning to read. Here are Cara’s 3 essential reads that helped make chemotherapy a bit easier:

1. Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel
2. Getting Well Again by O. Carl Simonton
3. Oswald Talked by Ray and Mary La Fontaine

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Cara’s Website

Think Pink!
The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website lends a helping hand to women coping with chemotherapy-induced side effects and shows you how to get involved.

Check Yourself
The circle, the line, or the wedge? Health Central’s handy instructional video teaches you three ways to give your girls a thorough self-exam.

Living with Lymphoma

There were a lot of unknowns. At the age of 26, Jen was the youngest person ever to be diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The average age being somewhere between 55-60. “I didn’t know much about it. I went on a leukemia and lymphoma website and looked it up and just poured over information for hours and hours about the disease and what was going to happen.”

Jen had to figure out a way to still live her life and enjoy her youth, though she had cancer.

Jen was incredibly independent, a single woman living alone, when she got sick. Balancing her independence with her sudden need to be taken care of was a huge challenge. “My mother would come to stay with me on treatment days. There were days that I still wanted to make my bed, and I still wanted to get ready. I would never let my mom help me take a bath or, when I could, take a shower. At the same time, I gave her complete control of the kitchen, which is huge for me.”

She found out on May 24th that her cancer was in remission, but the doctor was very frank-this isn’t a cure. It can and probably will come back. Although remission can seem like an end to life with cancer, Jen is very conscious of keeping a sober and peaceful perspective about her health. “For now, I go to the doctor every three months for checkups. I have X‑rays every six months. I have bone marrow biopsies every six to eight months. In between the doctor’s visits, I just have fun.”

This is what cancer looks like

The day Ruth went to the doctor with bronchitis she was a healthy 37-year-old woman who had a bad chest cold. When the nurse came back with the x-ray, she became a woman who was going to have to fight to survive. Ruth listened in disbelief as she was told there was a huge mass on her lungs.

“I walked out of there that day thinking that I had lung cancer, which my grandmother had died of a few years before that, and I knew it was pretty much a six month death sentence. That was a pretty traumatic day.” Just days later she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Ruth had never met anyone who had survived cancer. After some research, she found out there were hundreds of people who survived, but just don’t talk about it. “It felt really important to me that I do something that showed this is not automatically a death sentence,” she said.

One of the most exhausting parts of being diagnosted with cancer is trying to reconcile the visual information, “I am looking in the mirror I am perfectly healthy, I think I am fine and all of a sudden I am being told that I am deathly ill and I am going to lose all my hair and that this chemo that I am going to go through is going to tell the world that I am sick. I am not going to be able to hide it because it does it to you, you don’t have any choice, you lose weight, you turn yellow, you lose all your hair.”

As a photographer, Ruth became armed with a sense of purpose to document the jouney visually, which has admittedly been explored by almost every professional photo journalist– bookstores are filled with all sorts of great photojournalistic essays about people dying from cancer. But that’s just it, Ruth wanted to document the story of someone who had survived.

Two days into the process, Ruth began taking photos.

About four months in, Ruth laid the photos out for her and her students and realized that they told little stories. She put the stories together into groups, picking out groups of three that expressed complete statements. There are 350 total in the collection.

Follow this link to view Unremarkable.

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Worth a Thousand Words
Get a glimpse at some of the other photographic work Ruth has done in her career at Ruth Adams Photography.

Hodgkin’s? Huh?
Learn more about Hodgkin’s Disease with this detailed guide from the American Cancer Society.

Run for Her Life
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society are racing toward a cure by training people for marathons and triathlons and getting them to spread the message. Take the first step today with Team in Training.